Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Death in Venice - opera in two acts based on the short story by Thomas Mann (1973)
Gustav von Aschenbach – Marlin Miller
The Traveller and other roles – Scott Hendricks
Tadzio – Alessandro Riga
Jaschiu - Danilo Palmieri
Strawberry seller and other roles - Sabrina Vianello
Lace seller and other roles - Liesbeth Devos
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro La Fenice/Bruno Bartoletti
rec. 22-25 June 2008, La Fenice, Venice
Direction and costumes: Pierluigi Pizzi
Picture Format: 16:9
Sound Format: LPCM 2.0
Region Code: 0 – All regions
Running Time: 155 Min
Notes: ITA - ENG - GER - FRE
Subtitles: ITA - ENG - GER - FRE - SPA
Sung in: Italian
DYNAMIC (DVD) 33608 [154:00]

Even near-unconditional admirers of Britten’s music, such as I am, would probably admit that Death in Venice takes a little while to get going. “My mind beats on”, sings Gustav von Aschenbach, whilst in this production apparently trying to climb a wall of books. A little later we find him in a cemetery, surrounded again by monumental piles of learned volumes. Aschenbach is a blocked writer, and needs little encouragement from the Traveller, appearing from behind a grave to encourage him to head south to find inspiration. Some disturbing encounters follow. The Elderly Fop, the Gondolier who rows him to his hotel, the Hotel Manager and even, later, the Hotel Barber, all seem determined that his life will take a negative turn. In reality, these characters are all one and the same, and are played by the same singer. John Shirley-Quirk was unforgettable in the opera’s early days, as he is on the Decca recording conducted, owing the composer’s ill health, by Steuart Bedford. Scott Hendricks is outstanding here, though his view of the part is quite different from that of the older singer. No doubt in line with the view of stage director, Pier Luigi Pizzi, there is a more explicit sexual element to the role, with a fair amount of physical contact. And then, as the opera progresses, we realise that these characters are not simply agents of fate; rather, they play an active part in Aschenbach’s destruction. The Hotel Manager, in the closing minutes of the opera, seems to set in train the events which will lead to Aschenbach’s death, and once he is satisfied that this has been achieved, he snaps his pen shut with obvious satisfaction at a job well done. I don’t think I’d want to spend much time in this hotel when there is so much of Nick Shadow about the man at the top! He sings well, with a more forceful and less insinuating tone than Shirley-Quirk brought to the part.

The part of Aschenbach was composed for Peter Pears, and it fitted him like a glove, both musically and dramatically. Pears was able to bring a lifetime of experience to the final monologue, where Aschenbach muses on poetry, beauty and the senses, making it all the more moving. Marlin Miller can’t quite achieve that, well though he sings the part. He is also a fine actor, only occasionally over-playing facial expressions, and even then it would probably not come over as such in the theatre. The opera turns on the developing relationship – “if so one-sided an affair can be called a relationship” – between the troubled, aging writer and Tadzio, the beautiful son of a Polish family he encounters at his hotel. It is clear from the libretto that Tadzio is a child – an adolescent boy, it is reasonable to think – and here we have the major problem in this staging. To put it bluntly, Aschenbach is too young and Tadzio is too old. Beautiful he certainly is, and he walks around with an almost feline grace. There can be little doubt that Britten would have been less interested in setting the story had Tadzio been an adult, and there really is nothing childlike about Tadzio here. The part was conceived for a dancer, and Alessandro Riga is very fine. But I am troubled by the fact that when dancing with his friends there is little to set him apart from the others, either in his costume or in his role in the dance. There seems less reason, therefore, for Aschenbach to become so infatuated with him. He is very aloof, and necessarily so, but there are meant to be moments of interaction between the two, and they tend to go for little in this production. Aschenbach declares his love for Tadzio just before the curtain falls at the end of Act 1, and this follows the words “Ah! don’t smile like that! No-one should be smiled at like that.” Here, Tadzio smiles not at Aschenbach, but at his own mother. This seems of a piece with a view of the work that says that Aschenbach’s fate is the result of the actions of everybody but Tadzio. Even the Strawberry Seller, passing for the second time with her “soft, musty, over-ripe” fruit, a symbol of the sickness invading the city, enters the scene apparently with the specific intention that Aschenbach will take her putrefying wares.

A few other observations about the production seem worthwhile. The hotel guests, tourists, pavement café entertainment audience and so on, are sung by the chorus as required by the score, but from the pit. Their roles are mimed onstage. This works better in some places than in others. The Hotel Manager proudly shows Aschenbach the view from his room, accompanied by a few bars of music little short of miraculous. We do not see the whole stage on the screen, but I don’t think there’s any view to speak of, so the moment loses much of its impact. The Voice of Apollo, sung off-stage by Razek-François Bitar, seems too distant in Act 1, and the voice of Dionysus in Act 2 is revealed to be none other than the Hotel Manager! A suspended cross with the Polish family kneeling in line is a sufficient and highly effective way of suggesting their attendance at Mass. The English Clerk from the travel bureau, he who finally informs Aschenbach of the true situation regarding the spread of cholera in the city, appears to have no office, but conducts his business in the street. There are, indeed, quite a few events that take place in indeterminate places, neither on the beach, nor in the hotel.

The choreography is by Gheorghe Iancu, and I wasn’t taken by it on the whole. This is probably no more than personal taste, yet in spite of the fact that the scenario is clear and detailed I wasn’t always sure what was going on. There is little triumph at Tadzio’s victory, for example, and the mockery of Tadzio by his friends, a key event in the closing minutes of the opera, seems tame indeed. Set and décor are fine, though Venice is very grey, a contrast to the tourist images that accompany the opening credits. The orchestral playing under Bruno Bartoletti can’t be faulted, though the sound is a little recessed, and there is more colour in the orchestration than one would think from this DVD. Indeed, there is more colour overall in Death in Venice, and even after the sublime threnody that closes the opera, surely one of the most beautiful passages Britten ever penned, I was left with the lingering feeling that Aschenbach is a bit of a misery, even, sometimes, a bit of a bore.

William Hedley

Very fine singing and acting in a rather grey staging of Britten’s late masterpiece.