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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Death in Venice, Op. 88 (1973)
John Daszak (Gustav von Aschenbach), Leigh Melrose (Traveller, Elderly Fop, Old Gondolier, Hotel Manager, Hotel Barber, Leader of the Players, Voice of Dionysus), Tomasz Borczyk (Tadzio), Anthony Roth Costanzo (Voice of Apollo), Duncan Rock (English Clerk, Venice Guide)
Chorus of Teatro Real, Madrid
Orchestra of Teatro Real, Madrid/Alejo Pérez
Willy Decker (stage director), Wolfgang Gussmann (set and costume designer), Susana Mendoza (costume designer), Hans Toelstede (lighting designer), Athol Farmer (choreographer)
rec. 2014, Teatro Real, Madrid, Spain
NAXOS DVD 2.110577 [155 mins]

Death in Venice was Britten’s final opera. As his health declined, he insisted on completing the work before submitting himself to heart surgery. A stroke during the operation left him partially handicapped. Of the seven works he subsequently completed, the Third String Quartet is clearly related to the opera.

Death in Venice is based on a novella by Thomas Mann (1875-1955). It tells the story of Gustav von Aschenbach, a writer in a state of personal and artistic crisis. He looks to the South to rekindle his inspiration, and decides on a trip to Venice. In his hotel on the Lido, he encounters a beautiful Polish youth, Tadzio. There is to be no contact between them, but Aschenbach’s obsession with the boy provokes a meditation on beauty, its nature and its place in art. An epidemic of cholera arrives in Venice. Aschenbach contracts the disease and dies.

In Mann’s story, Aschenbach encounters a series of characters, each of whom has a role in determining his fate. These characters are faithfully recreated in Myfanwy Piper’s opera libretto. Aschenbach’s path crosses that of a mysterious traveller, for example, who persuades him to travel to the South. Britten decided to allot the role of the Traveller, and that of the other characters, to the same singer. The original cast list, therefore, was dominated by just two names, Peter Pears and John Shirley-Quirk.

Death in Venice was first performed at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1973. I saw the opera when it came to Covent Garden later in the year, and found it very moving, as I also did when the production returned to Covent Garden after the composer’s death. The work is not perfect, one can see that now; but there are more marvels than weaknesses, and well staged, as here, it becomes a powerful piece of theatre. It is also a significant artistic testament, as well as the most beautiful gift – in the role of Aschenbach – that the composer could have offered to his life’s partner.

The original production by Colin Graham followed Britten’s and Piper’s scenario to the letter. The subsidiary characters, for example, were properly mysterious and disturbing, but the role they played in Aschenbach’s demise was more alluded to than explicit. In Willy Decker’s production, first seen at the Liceu theatre in Barcelona, but here recorded in Madrid, these characters have a much more active role. The Traveller, at the outset, is dressed in a long, black overcoat which he eventually removes, revealing his naked torso. As the scene closes, he drapes the overcoat over Aschenbach’s shoulders to protect him, so it would seem, during his journey. On the boat, Aschenbach is disturbed by an encounter with the Elderly Fop, ‘rouged and wrinkled’, who enjoys the company of younger people. Another threatening character is the mysterious Old Gondolier who rows Aschenbach to the Venice Lido, though not by the route he asked for. On arrival at his hotel, Aschenbach is greeted by the Manager. All these characters are taken by Leigh Melrose. He is very fine as the more lugubrious figures, but opinions will differ about his assumption of the other roles. His gesticulations as the Hotel Manager certainly communicate the idea of grotesque obsequiousness, but I find them overdone and grating. And what purpose is served by making him quite so camp as the Fop and the Leader of the Travelling Players? Carrying much of this through into the singing entails, alas, the loss of quite a few of the notes. The strawberry seller, whose wares are the source of Aschenbach’s cholera, is accompanied by a colourful group of other characters who appear at various points to harass and disturb the writer. These include a guide, a lace seller and a beggar woman, though you would need a thorough knowledge of the work to know who they were or why they were there. A group of people reading the latest news are seen to be menacing Aschenbach, and the audience listening to the travelling players take up the refrain of the final song – ‘How ridiculous you are!’ – and direct it at Aschenbach himself.

The curtain rises on Aschenbach with his back to the audience, his writer’s block explicit by the scores of pages surrounding him in disorder on an enormous desk. By a clever piece of stagecraft, the desk later becomes the gondola that transports Aschenbach to the Lido. This first act is dominated by the blueness of the sky and the sea, and is often very beautiful, even with relatively restrained props and scenery. What a pity, though, that the sublime music that evokes the view from Aschenbach’s window is barely echoed on stage.

The close of the act brings the most important departure from Britten’s original intentions. Aschenbach is meant to observe Tadzio on the beach, taking part in a playful athletic competition with his friends, games in which he is always the victor. Apollo sings from above: ‘Praise, praise my power, Beauty is the mirror of spirit’. Aschenbach is thrilled by Tadzio’s triumph, and his obsession reaches a new phase with the words ‘I love you’, uttered only to himself. This scene is arguably too long, and posed problems for the original stage team. Willy Decker offers us few beach games, but instead a vaguely choreographed scene between Tadzio and Aschenbach’s double, while the real Aschenbach sleeps, and presumably dreams, in his beach chair. The couple dances, with Tadzio now naked. I believe the composer, who strived in this most sexual of his operas to achieve his aims by suggestion, would have been appalled by this; never mind that an early idea, soon discarded, was that these games of Apollo would indeed be played naked.

To separate Tadzio’s world from that of Aschenbach, Britten made Tadzio’s a silent role, originally a dancer whose beauty is enhanced by the dancer’s balletic grace. Tadzio is played here by Tomasz Borczyk, an actor rather than a dancer. He is poised and beautiful, but seems rather old to be dressed in his sailor suit. John Daszak, superb as Herod in the Salzburg Festival’s superlative staging of Salome, is just as convincing and satisfying as Aschenbach. There is nothing to complain about in the smaller parts. The orchestral playing, on the other hand, under Alejo Pérez, is competent but pale. Where is the menace and sickness, for example, as the orchestra accompanies the English travel clerk’s revelation that cholera has indeed arrived in Venice?
Death in Venice is a highly complex work, both in its music and in its message. It has enjoyed many stagings in recent years, and directors will obviously distance themselves from Colin Graham, who died in 2007 and whose job it was faithfully to realise the composer’s ideas. There are many fine and beautiful things in this production, and it is musically satisfying. Britten devotees such as myself will want to see it and return to it, as its point of view on this most equivocal of operas, is a fascinating one. I do wish there had been more distance between the characters, however, as I feel this is a part of Britten’s original vision that needs to be retained. Even the music keeps Aschenbach and Tadzio strictly apart: they are united only in the closing threnody for Aschenbach, surely one of the most beautiful passages Britten ever composed. Aschenbach dies because he eats over-ripe strawberries that are sold to him on the street, yet in this production it is Tadzio himself who gives Aschenbach the strawberries.
William Hedley

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