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Benjamin Britten, Death in Venice, soloists, City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Wednesday 30th June 2004 (AN)


Here was a special preview concert performance of Benjamin Britten’s final opera: Death in Venice. The occasion was a fundraiser for the ‘Venice in Peril’ charity that works to preserve the city from the dangers of flooding and climate change. With the exception of an unnecessarily protracted speech by concert committee chairman Viscount Norwich, the perks of the event were gladly received – Pickett jewellery limited edition goody-bags at a modest price and pizza in the interval courtesy of Pizza Express who donate 25 pence from every Veneziana pizza sold (a generous offer until you consider the odds of anyone ordering a mouthful let a alone a pizza-full of pine kernels, raisins, onions and capers!)


Although opera and charity concern themselves with the same city, Britten’s tragedy stays truer to Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella and speaks of the torment a conscientiously civilised artist suffers in the face of creative anarchy. It is this duality – personified by the rational Apollo and his debauched counterpart Dionysus – that forms the musical infrastructure of Britten’s last operatic offering.


The protagonist is a dried-up author, Gustav von Aschenbach, who leaves Munich for Venice as a source of inspiration. What he learns on his journey is that to touch raw aesthetic beauty is to give oneself up to the Dionysian spirit, and to do that completely is to reject the constraints of humanity – namely, to give up existence as he knows it. The object of Aschenbach’s damning desire is a young aristocratic Polish boy, and it is in contemplation of this youth’s serene beauty that the author loses the battle for dignity and self-control, dying a defeated man to the harrowing concluding bars of music.


Britten further emphasised the distinction between the Apollonian and Dionysian by separating their art forms – singers versus dancers. Aschenbach (tenor) is a singing role, as are the multifarious characters (baritone) who help him along his apocalyptic trajectory. The gods Apollo (counter-tenor) and Dionysus (baritone), straddling him on either side, are also operatically conceived. Tadzio (represented by the shimmering vibraphone), his family and companions are set apart from the other dramatic characters by being danced or mimed: the worlds of Aschenbach and Tadzio are incompatible.


It is a shame that the concert performance necessarily neglected the mimetic component – even if baritone Alan Opie in his many guises lit up the stage with accomplished caricatures, the psychological impetus of the tale was unbalanced and misrepresented. The Dionysian dimension that is integral to both Britten and Mann’s conceptions was truncated. Moreover, on musical grounds alone, the ritualistic momentum of Britten’s score requires a carnal point of observation.


The production’s short cuts were no obstacle to the outstanding vocal performances. Philip Langridge, in the role of Aschenbach, is no stranger to Britten. Nor is he a stranger to any period of music, from early classical to the present day, which explains his astounding vocal versatility and sensitivity. At the age of 65, and only a year older than the originally cast Peter Pears who premiered the role at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1973, Langridge’s voice betrays no sign of ageing.


In an equally prominent role – though it be the sum of a host of dubious characters ranging from truculent gondolier to seedy hotel manager – Alan Opie has enough energy and wit to pull off the entire opera all by himself! Manoeuvring with ease a resonant voice of intoxicating power, Mr Opie shifted from babbling Italian hairdresser to terrifying Greek god (as the Voice of Dionysus in Aschenbach’s Act II nightmare).


Death in Venice is essentially a two-man show, with tenor (as protagonist and narrator) and baritone (who plays a myriad of characters conducting Aschenbach on his trip) leading a cast of counter-tenor and chorus, comprising a large group of soloists with small parts. As with the chorus, the orchestra is efficiently constructed – the group is modest in proportions but effectively put to use: a single criticism of the generally well-controlled City of London Sinfonia is the loose articulation which is at odds with the pointed accuracy and attack from the vocalists. Fortunately for the orchestra, unlike Dionysus and Apollo, this was a conflict that was reconcilable even if it did show up the instrumental inferiority.


Aline Nassif


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