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Britten, Death in Venice soloists, orchestra and chorus of Frankfurt Opera. Conductor: Karen Kamensek. Director: Keith Warner. Sets: Boris Kudlicka. Costumes: Kaspar Glarner. Premiere on 25.2.2006. (SM)


Aschenbach: Kim Begley

Traveller, Elderly Fop, Gondolier, Hotel Manager, Hotel Barber, Dionysus: Johannes Martin Kränzle

Tadzio: Laurenz Johannis Leky

Apollo: William Towers


Britten's final opera, "Death in Venice", is so rarely staged that it seems more than lucky coincidence that as many as three new productions are being put on within the space of just four months in Germany this year. Keith Warner is responsible for the first-ever staging of the work in Frankfurt, which opened on Saturday. The tiny houses of Greifswald and Stralsund will unveil Ralf Dörnen's new production next month and then in May, Andreas Baesler presents his reading of this morbid 12-tone work, which is effectively Britten's own requiem for himself, at the theatres of Krefeld and Möenchengladbach.

As ever with Britten's oeuvre, the composer's own landmark recording of "Death in Venice" - he was too ill at that stage to conduct himself, but he closely supervised the recording with Stuart Bedford - is both a bane and a blessing. Blessing because like all his other own recordings, it not only offers invaluable insights into Britten's own intentions, but also stands as the definitive, still unsurpassed performance of the work. But a bane too, because any subsequent performance of the role of Gustav von Aschenbach will inevitably be compared - unfavourably - to that of the role's creator, the composer's lover and lifelong companion, Peter Pears.

While the themes of Britten's other masterpieces for the stage, "Peter Grimes", "Turn of the Screw" or "Billy Budd" are much more universal, one of the difficulties in staging "Death in Venice" surely lies in the fact that its setting is so precise, both in time and location and in its protrayal of attitudes towards homosexuality that have long become outdated, even since the early 1970s when Britten composed the work.

Given the specificity of the opera's themes, it was either courageous or foolhardy of Keith Warner and his set designer Boris Kudlicka to cut all references to time and place to an absolute minimum. Venice is only hinted at by its labyrinth of canals, which is likened to the topography of the human brain at the start of Aschenbach's monologue, and by the sinister death-black gondolas that glide across the stage, at one point bearing Aschenbach's own coffin, as if in some oblique reference to Nicholas Roeg's seminal thriller, "Don't Look Now", which coincidentally was also made in 1973.

It is only at the very end in one of the strongest images of the entire evening that we see the spires and domes of Venice, inverted, descend from the sky and envelop the dying Aschenbach. Perhaps this refusal by Warner to offer a concrete staging, to revisit the visual opulence of Luchino Visconti's film of the same year, is a commendable attempt to make the opera's themes more universal.

But any such intentions are ultimately undermined by the cliche-ridden portrayal of Aschenbach's love for Tadzio, which Warner degrades to nothing more than the lustful longings of an ageing, dirty old queen for a quick glimpse of the boy with no clothes on, a sort of death-dance à "La Cage aux Folles". And without the specificity of time and place, Kudlicka's austere, but constantly shifting sets of floating frames and gliding gondolas -or all their picture-postcard beauty - appear more an attempt to hold the audience's attention rather than offer any really new perspectives on the work.


Another of the most visually arresting scenes was also one of the simplest - when Aschenbach spies Tadzio as he strolls along the endless beach of the Lido in the bright morning light.

Musically, the success of  this two-and-a-half-hour-long work depends solely on the role of Aschenbach, who is on stage for the entire evening. And in Kim Begley, Frankfurt has found a tenor with a rare beauty of tone. Begley wobbled a little in the opening scene ("My mind beats on"), but the lyricism of his voice soon shone through, tinged with just the right touch of melancholy. Nevertheless, Begley came nowhere near the dramatic intensity of Pears - or more recently of Philip Langridge on Richard Hickox's new recording - in the role. Here was no ageing artist in spiritual crisis, but a likeable, rather podgy civil servant of a man constantly scribbling notes into his writer's notebook.

Frankfurt's own Johannes Martin Kränzle was also no match for John Shirley-Quirk for whom Britten wrote the multiple Mephisto-like roles of Traveller, Elderly Fop, Gondolier, Hotel Manager, Barber and Dionysus. Indeed, Kränzle's baritone tends to thin out and wobble in his top register. And while he was very well suited to the Wozzeck-like satire of the hotel barber, he lacked the brooding malevolence that should have made the Gondolier really creepy.

Countertenor William Towers, making his Frankfurt debut, sang Apollo with beacon-like beauty. Instead of the young male dancer that Britten had in mind for Tadzio, Warner uses an actor, Laurenz Johannis Leky, who is a little too knowing as the sultry, arrogant object of Aschenbach's desires.

In the pit, Karen Kamensek conducted Britten's amazing score, which ranges from dodecaphony to shimmering gamelan music, with superb discipline and security. And the Museumsorchester was every inch up to the work's virtuosic demands.

It is wonderful to see "Death in Venice" staged and this new Frankfurt production is tasteful and pleasing on both eye and ear. But there were plenty of dramatic longueurs during the course of the evening and Warner's reading ultimately failed to make any real lasting impression.

Simon Morgan

Pictures © Monika Rittershaus 2006


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