Britten: Death in Venice

English National Opera

London Coliseum, London, 23 June 2013 4 stars

Death in VeniceBenjamin Britten's centenary year is celebrated with an outstanding production of Death in Venice by the English National Opera. The high quality event, ENO's revival of Deborah Warner's 2007 production, serves not only as a worthy tribute to Britten, but also as a rewarding experience in the opera house.

Tenor John Graham-Hall gives an astonishingly virtuoso performance as the ageing writer Gustav von Aschenbach. His vocal delivery is exemplary in its many shades of tonal colours and wide-ranging dynamics, while his dramatic portrayal gives a moving account of the artist's fascination with beauty and youth as a possible salvation from disintegration and from the inevitable, final demise. Graham-Hall treats the central theme (as does, crucially, stage director Deborah Warner) with respect towards Britten who clearly identified with the dying artist. This was the mortally ill Britten's last opera, its composition process punctuated with periods of stay in hospital. Thomas Mann's novella about the artist's passion for healthy, wholesome beauty clearly resonated with Britten who was cherishing such qualities throughout his life. It is the love of unspoiled beauty, rather than Britten's supposed erotic feelings for pubescent boys, which dominates Warner's production and thus Graham-Hall's mesmerizing portrayal. Hence, notwithstanding the innate implication of scene 13 (where, in Aschenbach's restless dream, Dyonisus wins the artist from Apollo), Warner upholds beauty as the driving force for Aschenbach's (and Britten's) pursuit of youth. (Arguably, in this opera, the imitated sounds of pentatonic gamelan bells--here representing the young and beautiful Tadzio--provide Britten's musical testament to his appreciation and admiration of youthful innocence and beauty.)

Baritone Andrew Shore provides an excellent counter-point, both musically and dramatically, to Graham-Hall's Aschenbach. He is fascinating in his seven characters (composed specifically for one singer), most of which represent some aspect of death, and he keeps the tension (without being tense) all way through. Counter-tenor Tim Mead is perfect for the part of Apollo: he has the stature, the heavenly voice and evident expertise in early music performance style. But all singers taking solo parts of various lengths make strong contributions; this is where ENO's strength as an ensemble company manifests itself at its best.

Dance is a very important element in Death in Venice, as Britten composed the role of young, beautiful Tadzio for a dancer. Sam Zaldivar, still a student at the Royal Ballet School, looks the part and dances with maturity belying his age. He is charming as a well-behaved boy of the Polish family but also impressively acrobatic in the fight scenes. He is not seductive (and a major music critic registered this aspect as a negative) but surely he is not meant to be: he presents innocent beauty to perfection. Playing the role of Jaschiu, Tadzio's friend, solo dancer Marcio Teixeira--a student at the English National Ballet School--also excelled (although a taller dancer, matching Zaldivar's height, might have indicated boys of the same age therefore making the fight scene--where Jaschiu overwhelms Tadzio--even more credible). But the whole group of seven dancers impressed with their discipline, energy and style.

Deborah Warner and her team present the ancient Greek idea of beauty and physicality alongside the early 20th century elegance of a Venice hotel with minimalist sets, detailed characterization of all participants on stage and fluent cinematic lighting. Jean Kalman's lighting closely follows the musical content of the composition as well as the story line. Tom Pye's sets are evocative and combine organically with the lighting as well with Kim Brandstrup's imaginative, tasteful and yet entertaining choreography.

Orchestra and chorus did full justice to Britten's score under music director Edward Gardner. There were no surtitles but there was no need for them: diction was crystal clear, as was the combined artistic concept of the production. One could not ask for more.

By Agnes Kory

Photos: Alastiar Muir