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Seen and Heard Opera Review

Aldeburgh Festival (1) Britten,  Death in Venice: Yoshi Oida (director), Tom Schenk (set designer), Paul Daniel (conductor), Britten-Pears Orchestra,  The Maltings, Snape, Aldeburgh, 11.06.2007 (AO)

Gustav von Aschenbach : Alan Oke
The traveler and other roles : Peter Sidhom
Voice of Apollo : William Towers
Tadzio : Pavel Povraznik

Two productions of Death in Venice within a month : one high budget and glamorous at the ENO and the other at Aldeburgh with a much more humble pedigree. Yet the latter easily eclipsed the former in terms of artistic merit.
Death in Venice is Britten’s Faust and is inherently  dramatic.  Wisely, Yoshio Oida, the director, knows that the real focus of the plot lies within Aschenbach’s psyche.  Nothing here was mere decoration, nothing merely for superficial effect.  Everything revolved around the definition of the central character, even the basic imagery of Venice itself.

“Ambiguous Venice, where water is married to stone, and passion confuses the senses” sings Aschenbach as he encounters the city built on water where horizons of land, sky and sea blend amorphously.  This  Venice isn’t about luxury hotels: indeed  Aschenbach is repelled by tourist touts and tries to escape. “Ambiguous Venice” is something altogether more sinister.  It is a “timeless, legendary world, of dark, lawless errands”, a place of menace and mystery. This is an unnatural city, built on water, back into which the city will slowly but inexorably sink.  The set designer, Tom Schenk, used the rough-hewn walls behind the stage at the Maltings without adornment, because they resemble the weather-beaten walls of Venice rising straight out of the canals.  Only a little clever lightning was needed to convey the impression that we were trapped in an endless Venetian canal, an image that intensifies the claustrophobia that is so much a part of the atmosphere in this opera. Yet, more subtly, the set  embeds the opera into the building for which it was conceived, linking this new production to its premiere, when Britten was himself nearing his own demise.

Even before arriving in Venice, Aschenbach is thinking of death, of   “a rectangular hole in the ground”.  There’s just such a hole in the middle of the stage, filled with water.  It’s a masterstroke.  With simple changes of light, it convinces as the sea, or the maze of lagoons and canals through which gondolas ply. Sometimes it evokes the foul-smelling sewers of the city, emptying into canals, spreading disease.  Aschenbach’s journeys across water are like journeys across the River Styx, each crossing propelling him towards destiny. Yet water symbolizes life, too.  Tadzio and his youthful friends cavort on the beach.  They splash carelessly in and out of the water.  As Aschenbach tries to draw closer to Tadzio, he, too, tries to approach the water, but can’t bring himself to get wet. Music and staging converge together to amplify Aschenbach’s dilemma.

This production has grown from a profound understanding of the score.  The music itself portrays character. Tadzio’s music, based on gamelan, is completely alien to Aschenbach’s.  It’s bright, percussive sharpness contrasts with the shadows and ambiguity elsewhere in the score. While Aschenbach has lost his faith in life and in his creative powers : Tadzio reminds him of what he was and might have been.  Sensual as Aschenbach’s music can be, fundamentally this opera is not about sexuality, even though there are hints of it in the scene between the elderly fop and the boys. Here the dancers, members of the Tanztheater Nürnberg, were muscular and athletic, the focus being on their energy, not allure. The dancing extended the music, instead of distracting. Indeed, many of the non singing parts, including Tadzio, are taken by dancers who move, even when not dancing, with exquisite grace and litheness.

Similarly, Oida understood Britten’s concept of drama within drama.  The baritone plays multiple parts for a reason : he isn’t actually a “real” character at all but remains sinister and mysterious.  Hence the bizarre writing in his music, which strains and twists the voice into unnatural pitches, all of  which Sidhom achieved with great vividness and personality. However,  it is essential that the role is played as a single character. The “gondolier” is the “traveler” with a black cape, the “barber” pulls off his robe to reveal the “fop” costume beneath.

Sidhom’s role also connects to Apollo, the spirit of light and purity.  Resplendent in white silk, lit with dazzling light, William Tower’s Apollo seemed like an apparition from another world.  His singing rang out clear and pure and  Towers is magnificent, one of the most interesting talents around at the moment. He’s outstanding – if only there were more roles to display his voice and abilities!  Oida’s focus on the struggle for Aschenbach’s soul made the most of Tower’s talent.  When Apollo was rejected, Towers projected such heartfelt grief that for a moment it seemed that the god had become human.  This again brought out deeper levels in the drama – Aschenbach thinks he’s godlike in his self discipline, but he soon discovers that he’s not.

The excellent staging enhanced the characterisation of Aschenbach so brilliantly that it didn’t seem too much of a disadvantage that Alan Oke’s delivery was straightforward and uncomplicated.  His is a lovely voice, as we heard when he sang Gandhi in Satyagraha, and he has the necessary stamina.  However, Aschenbach is a role that requires much more inwardness than Ganhi, indeed, it benefits from a Lieder singer’s sensitivity to subtle nuance and inflection.  Britten’s music, moreover, works best with a sensitivity to the composer’s rather unusual, quirky idiom. Fortunately this production supported the role like a sort of exoskeleton giving it structure beyond the voice alone. Oke didn’t have to compete against busy stage activity as was the case with the ENO production where Aschenbach was sidelined physically as well as metaphorically.

The intelligence in the production was matched by the orchestral playing.  The Britten-Pears Orchestra comprises young players, some still studying, yet this performance showed just how good and fully professional they are. Much credit was due to the conductor, Paul Daniel who was with the innovative Opera North for years, and with ENO until 2005.  His experience paid huge dividends, for he galvanized this orchestra, inspiring a performance so animated that it complimented the intensity on stage.  Daniel’s attention to detail was superb. In this opera in particular, detail is essential because so many clues to interpretation are embedded in the music. This performance was so lucid, that it seemed as if Daniel were conducting a powerful chamber orchestra.  When Aschenbach contemplates in reverie for example, the vocal line is supported by an exquisitely delicate piano part, as if Britten has incorporated the intense miniature of Lieder performance into the wider canvas of opera.  Conducting this requires particular acuity of vision.  The pianist, moreover, was superb, helped no end by an instrument so lovingly maintained that it supported the clarity of the playing.  Audiences always don’t appreciate just how much work goes on behind the scenes to fine tune the nuts and bolts of performance.  Daniel’s feel for Britten also showed in the way the “gamelan” orchestration was defined.  The percussion is supposed to evoke exotic mystery, and shine out, yet still blend the pentatonic with more conventional harmony. This is some of Britten’s finest work, to which Daniels and his players did great justice.

This production was a wonderful confluence of music, ideas and theatre.  Oida says he developed his ideas by asking questions – why does Tadzio unsettle Aschenbach ?   Why doesn’t Aschenbach leave when he knows cholera is around ?  Is this  “passive suicide”, an unconscious death wish ? It is from this curiosity about the human side of the drama that this sensitive interpretation grew.   “I am telling the story of the end of a human life”,  Oida adds in his programme notes, “All I can do is demonstrate how far the life of every individual is unexpected and mysterious”.


Anne Ozorio

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