Death in Venice lives

19 Jun

Death in Venice strikes me as unique in Britten’s operatic output.  All his others have plots involving conflict and characters who play off each other.  In Death in Venice you have an evocation of a single man’s internal conflicts.  External characters trouble him but, essentially, the opera is a monologue for Aschenbach and orchestra with interruptions from other characters.  If many of his operas are about the way in which outsiders fit in to their community, this opera takes it to an extreme.  The result is a very different sort of opera which can appear long and slow.  It relies on a strong central performance, virtuoso orchestral playing and direction that keeps the interest alive.

When I saw Deborah Warner’s ENO production six years ago, the opera seemed longer and slower and more tedious than I remembered from other visits.  I wasn’t convinced by Ian Bostridge as Aschenbach and, however, beautifully done the production was, I felt that the opera was a bit of a trial and seemed enormously self-indulgent.

I was in two minds as to whether to attend the revival.  I’m glad I did as the performance on 18th June seemed stronger and more interesting than I had remembered, even if it didn’t completely dispel doubts about the piece.

It helped to have John Graham-Hall as Aschenbach.  It’s 27 years since I saw him as Albert Herring and he’s become a wonderful singing actor and interpreter of Britten.  He is eminently watchable, creating a character that looks like a distinguished German author.  He communicates with absolute honesty with the audience and manages the changes in Aschenbach’s mind wonderfully – you get the gradual awakening of interest up to the climactic “I love you” at the end of the first act, moving into disintegration during the second.  He sang the words with absolute clarity – no need for the absent surtitles – and had you holding on to every word.  He phrased them and coloured them impeccably, creating an entirely convincing character.  Other Aschenbachs have been more melliflous but I don’t think I have found any so convincing or interesting – and I don’t believe that Britten was writing this for beautiful singing.  This was the central performance and held the cast together.

The others were all good.  Andrew Shore is a convincing actor and did the seven baritone roles with aplomb.  His voice is sounding more frayed than it did and I remember Alan Opie making a much more convincing and sinister set of villains.  Tim Mead sang Apollo strongly and all the rest of the huge cast did their roles clearly and well.  Sam Zaldivar looked good as Tadzio and you could understand Aschenbach’s obsession with him.

Deborah Warner’s production now strikes me as a complete masterpiece of direction.  She catches the leisurely, introspective feel of the music to perfection.  Each move is perfectly choreographed and planned.  It moves with the music, never distracting, always in tune with what you’re hearing.  The wide set, the shades of white, grey and black, the gently swaying curtains, all provide the atmosphere that’s needed.  Kim Brandstrup’s choreography is as  good as I’ve seen.

Edward Gardner is back to conduct and seems entirely in tune with his director.  Is his pacing a bit too deliberate?  At times I thought so – it felt like a long opera and there were times in the second act where I found my mind wandering – but he gets wonderful colours out of the orchestra and they play with precision and warmth.

I don’t find this an easy opera to love – there are few heart-stopping moments, none at all where you identify with the characters and I tend to leave thinking “so what”, but there is undoubtedly a fascination about the piece, a strange beauty and certainty about it.  It was unexpectedly good to see it again.

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