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A Singer’s Notes 126: Lenox Nights—The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare and Company and Fellows at the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood

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Kate Abbruzzese and Jonathan Epstein. 'The Merchant of Venice.' Shakespeare & Company 2016. Photo John Dolan.

Kate Abbruzzese and Jonathan Epstein. ‘The Merchant of Venice.’ Shakespeare & Company 2016. Photo John Dolan.

The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare and Company

The Merchant of Venice has always been called a problem play. I might call it a miracle play. Here is why. There is a role in this play which dominates—with fewer than 350 lines. In the hands of Jonathan Epstein, Shylock was believable, unavoidable. It is important to remember that the play comes to an end without Shylock, although there is some of his equivocation in his daughter, clearly. In Mr. Epstein’s performance I heard a rare understanding of how the role finds its power. His rich voice ranged very little from loud to soft, fast to slow. It always had a distance. There were long silences. It had emptiness. This wonderful actor made silence dominate. People are always surprised when they find out how few lines Shylock has, but the spoken lines were only part of what Mr. Epstein did. An even larger part perhaps was the constant intrusion of silence, a delivery that sometimes was close to monotone, and a sort of ease in his silence that made it a large part of the role. Again, here is the miracle. For me it was the management of the silences in his performance that made it large, that kept it ringing in our ears when he was offstage. Milton might have called it “silence made visible.” I might call it “silence made eloquent.” From this it derives its power. Even in the fatal moment, taking the pound of flesh, though agitated and loud, there was a resignation, and Mr. Epstein in the last few words even ended with a bit of an upturn.

There was another shining presence on the stage—this time an actress called upon to give life to a role which leaves much in doubt. Kate Abbruzzese as Jessica, with very few lines, captivated her act. Again equivocation reigns. After hearing the most beautiful lines ever written about music from her lover, her bare as bones response is “I am never merry when I hear sweet music.” Each line this young actress spoke got and kept my attention, without exaggeration. Silence is my theme song in this piece, and Kate Abbruzzese used this as masterfully as Mr. Epstein did. I heard in both an emptiness which only silence could speak. She was her father’s daughter.

Stefan Asbury leads the TMCO, countertenor Daniel Moody, and the Lorelei Ensemble in the U.S. premiere of George Benjamin's Dream of the Song, Photo Hilary Scott.

Stefan Asbury leads the TMCO, countertenor Daniel Moody, and the Lorelei Ensemble in the U.S. premiere of George Benjamin’s Dream of the Song, Photo Hilary Scott.

Fellows at the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood

Again two extraordinary performances by Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra at the end of the Festival of Contemporary Music. Daniel Moody, countertenor, sang a difficult, very difficult piece, Dream of the Song by George Benjamin, with exceptional diction and a voice which had many colors, not often heard in a countertenor. He had poise; he told you what it meant – it was just terrific. Stefan Asbury led his young charges through a blazing performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila-Symphonie. Making you listen was the business of the great first chair clarinetist, Sean Krissman. When this fine young artist plays, you must listen.

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