Britten’s final stage masterpiece is not an easy work to come to terms with; but there is no other opera quite like it, and once the initial resistance has been overcome, it can exert a powerful, haunting spell – perhaps like Venice itself. Deborah Warner’s beautiful staging was first seen in 2007, with Ian Bostridge in the central role, and this DVD is made from the 2013 revival.
Britten had contemplated for years turning Thomas Mann’s novella into an opera. Ironically, when he finally cleared his desk for it in the early 1970s, his solicitors warned him that Italian film director Visconti was working on a movie on the same subject. Litigation was a danger, unless Britten agreed not to see the film under any circumstances. I somehow doubt that was a difficult undertaking to give. Visconti, with the famed use of drowsily romantic Mahler, gives us a comparatively sanitised version of the story; Britten delves much deeper into the multiple layers of meaning. The artist’s worship of beauty pitted against his striving for intellectual rigour; self-control versus self-gratification; up towards the light, down towards darkness; these and many more, epitomised by the dialogues between Apollo and Dionysus, make up the philosophical scaffolding that maintains the opera’s structure so convincingly.
The music is so extraordinary. The first time I heard the work, I was struck, at the end, by how very little I could recall. I could remember instrumental and vocal colours, types of motion, but little else. On a re-hearing, all fell quickly into place, as did this opera’s relationship to Britten’s earlier ones. Sometimes its actual themes; the uneasy ‘gondola’ music, as Aschenbach arrives in Venice, is closely related to the great Peter Grimes
passacaglia; the choral music for the gymnastic games of the boys recalls Gloriana
; the show provided by the players in the hotel makes one think inevitably of the ‘play within a play’ in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
– and so on. As in those works, Britten uses his orchestra with such imagination; the passage accompanying Aschenbach’s arrival in Venice is astounding, for in place of Visconti’s sentimental Mahler, we have an assault on the senses – rippling water catching the bright light, church bells, and the brass evoking grand Renaissance architecture. By the way, I love Mahler and have no axe to grind there – it’s Visconti’s use of his music I have reservations about.
Later on, for the playing and dancing on the beach, Britten uses tuned percussion to evoke a gamelan
texture. Britten and Pears visited Bali in the 1960s, and the composer made it his business to learn about the complex structures of Indonesian music. He was able to use some of those ideas here, as well as in such works as the ballet The Prince of the Pagodas.
Deborah Warner’s production is worthy of this magnificent work, and she has secured disciplined and stylish performances from her cast. Visually it is both stunning and haunting; the final unforgettable image is of Aschenbach slumped lifeless, his deck-chair in the shadows, while Tadzio pirouettes in silhouette against the huge setting sun; slow curtain, gulp. There is a sense of coming full circle here, as the strings climb into the ethereal heights, reminding me of ‘Dawn’, the Sea Interlude which is the true beginning of Britten’s first opera, Peter Grimes
What of the cast? So much depends on the role of Aschenbach, and here John Graham-Hall does a fine job. His voice doesn’t always sound at its best, and we must remember that the DVD is compiled from three different performances. It is an incredibly difficult role to sustain, but he manages it. He is at his strongest in those recitatives with piano accompaniment, where he achieves a remarkable freedom in his parlando,
and also gives us his best acting. He is helped by the lightness of the scoring; elsewhere, the heavier orchestration means he has to push his voice, and then his acting seems stiffer, less natural. Sometimes, he really does overdo it, as in his ‘old man with a walking stick’ entry in the final scene. Mostly, he manages to avoid such excesses, and his general bearing, that of a somewhat distracted academic, is highly appropriate — as is his striking resemblance to Alban Berg.
Britten decided that no fewer than seven
parts – those of the Traveller, the Elderly Fop, the Old Gondolier, the Hotel Manager, the Hotel Barber, the Leader of the Players, and the Voice of Dionysus – should be taken by one singer. This might seem strange, but his reasons are sound; he wanted a dark baritone voice for all these characters who exercise a negative influence on Aschenbach, and push him towards self-destruction. Andrew Shore is superb; he manages to give each one an individuality, while maintaining a consistently sinister edge.
Tim Mead, as Apollo, is a mesmerising presence; I first encountered him in George Benjamin’s recent opera ‘Written on Skin’, where the beauty of his voice was striking, as well as, again, his stage presence. His web-site says that he is lined up for Oberon in Britten’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (at Bergen) – that should be quite something, and on the face of it, seems a part made for this exciting young singer. One more fine piece of intelligent and characterful singing comes from another young Englishman, baritone Marcus Farnsworth. He takes the role of the English Clerk, the one person in the hotel prepared to be honest with Aschenbach, and tell him about the outbreak of plague.
So is this the best ‘Death in Venice’ on DVD? I suspect it is, for it is very fine. Tony Palmer’s film version is visually beautiful, benefiting from its Venetian location. Despite its excellence, I am always uneasily aware of dubbed singers, their lips and throats never perfectly in synch. for long. Then there is the Dynamic version, recorded at La Fenice, with Marlin Miller a convincing Aschenbach. This has one major advantage over the ENO production – the dancing. Alessandro Riga as Tadzió is exceptional, and all the dance episodes are quite wonderful; the DVD is almost worth buying for the stunning human pyramid in Act 1 alone. That said, the recorded sound is relatively poor and very boxy, and the singers are generally not up to the standard of the ENO cast. For me this Opus Arte DVD is a winner. Other than see the piece in the theatre, this is the best way to be drawn into this opera’s strange and unforgettable world.
Britten discography & review index:
Death in Venice