English National Opera's production of Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice is a unique meeting of truly great minds that also provides an outstanding cast and a most sensitive and fascinating staging.
Myfanwy Piper's libretto is based on Der Tod in Venedig by the great German writer Thomas Mann. In the novella, Mann explores the idea of Platonic beauty which is unobtainable. In his search for creative inspiration, the main character - an ageing German writer Gustav von Aschenbach - travels to Venice where he becomes infatuated with a beautiful young Polish boy called Tadzio. Aschenbach admires the boy from a distance but the desire for unattainable beauty is so strong that it overcomes reason: Aschenbach stays in cholera-stricken Venice and dies there.
As is evident from his opera, Britten regarded the Aschenbach-Tadzio relationship as the story of the tender, unfulfilled homosexual love of the perturbed writer for the beautiful boy in the distance.
Deborah Warner's staging is remarkable. The philosophical nature of the libretto could render the opera difficult to enjoy. There are long passages when nothing happens, apart from Aschenbach explaining his struggle with ideas from various philosophical thoughts. But in this production Venice is also a major player, thus enabling us to see life on the Lido, in the hotel, at the train station and elsewhere. While clearly following staging instructions from Britten's score, in addition Warner makes brilliant use of walk-on parts in credible actions in order to maintain life on stage. The sets (by Tom Pye) are attractive and simple, changing between the scenes unobtrusively by easily shifting walls, curtains and similar devices. The lighting design (by Jean Kalman) assures that, apart from the opening scene which is meant to be in Munich, at no point do we think that we are anywhere else but in Venice.
The choreography in this opera is of the essence. Although Britten leaves it to the choreographer of any particular production to contribute his/her ideas, the score specifies that the dance style for Tadzio and his family must be less than fully-fledged ballet but it must not be completely naturalistic either. The beach games of the children, Tadzio and his friends throughout the opera are of crucial dramatic significance. Even though, as a devoted Ashton fan, I would have loved to see what Sir Frederick Ashton created for the original choreography, I found Kim Brandstrup's choreography beautiful, charming, exciting and - above all - very musical.
I was apprehensive about going to see Ian Bostridge in the monumental tenor role of Aschenbach. A few years back (as Orfeo at the Barbican) he seemed to encounter a physical struggle to get his voice where he wanted it to be. But this time, although Aschenbach is on stage in all seventeen scenes of the opera (and he sings most of the time during the two and half hours of music), there was no sign of struggle. Bostridge seems to be made for the role, in more ways than one. He delivered a magnificent performance both as a singer and as the character Aschenbach. Bostridge's experience of his university years (reading philosophy) seemed to come in use in his portrayal of struggling philosophical thoughts. However, in the penultimate scene, his representation of a tired old man's walking seemed to be slightly overdone.
Baritone Peter Coleman-Wright gave virtuoso performances as no less than seven characters throughout the opera and countertenor Iestyn Davis, singing the part of Apollo, looked and sounded strong and Apollonian.
The choral ensembles were not always perfect but, to borrow a cliché, 'that's life'.
The dancers, including Benjamin Paul Griffiths in the role of Tadzio, were graceful and acrobatic as required, the children (even the very young ones, perhaps five or six year olds) energetic and charming. The orchestra, under Edward Gardner, delivered the score ably. Full praise is due to the percussion players whom Britten kept unusually busy.
My companion for the evening, a 25 year old law student, has never been to an opera until now. Though I would not regard Death in Venice as an easy piece for a first time opera goer, my companion was overwhelmed (and probably hooked on opera). This is surely the highest praise the production can receive. Deservedly so.
By Agnes Kory