Hot on the heels of Deborah Warner’s production for ENO, the Aldeburgh Festival staging of Death in Venice is an altogether different kettle of fish. Where Warner and her designers went for visual beauty, Yoshi Oida strips the concert hall bare and concentrates on the characters and their actions. Without the benefit of flying room or wing space, this is probably the best option for a venue like Snape.
There is a certain austere stony elegance the atmosphere of some rundown Venetian backwater is clearly evoked with the reflection of real water dappling the walls but overall Oida has gone for the decay side of the coin. Aschenbach pukes, staggers and clutches himself at the end, as sickness, of one kind or another, grips him like an unseen fist.
The opera is played out on a series of platforms over a canal of shallow water. Aschenbach literally gets his feet wet at the end of Act One, as he dips his toe into the pool of forbidden feelings. A small square hovering over the action and switching between a mirror and projections of various textures is a nice touch which could have been expanded for fuller effect.
Following Richard Hickox, with the Philharmonia last autumn, and Edward Gardner at the Coliseum, Paul Daniel conducts the Britten-Pears Orchestra in another magnificent performance of Britten’s sparkling score. The dream sequence is a truly terrible (as in terrifying) sound and the percussion sections, so integral to the opera, are played with great delicacy and sensitivity.
There is consistency of quality throughout the performances. Alan Oke (impressive as Gandhi in Satyagraha recently) is a wonderful Aschenbach, with the maturity lacking in Bostridge’s performance, a beautiful and expressive tone and fine acting ability. As the 7 baritone roles, Peter Sidhom excels, although there’s not a great deal of differentiation between the characters. This is probably intentional, his Barber mutating back into the Elderly Fop, as Aschenbach is finally transformed into the thing he despises.
We seem to need our gods embodied (and to look like us) these days as William Towers‘ Apollo takes on corporeal form, just as Iestyn Davies’ did in London. Tall and a commanding presence with a ravishing tone, the counter-tenor impresses even more than he did on the South Bank last year.
Each of the smaller roles is a clearly defined characterisation and the chorus work puts the ENO’s to shame. The dancers have an enormous area to work in, on both land and water, and Daniela Kurzs abstract choreography uses the space imaginatively.
Had this been the only Death in Venice to come our way, this would have been a year worth waiting for. With two very different interpretations, each with tremendous strengths, this has been a bumper time for admirers of Britten’s last opera. Following its short run at Aldeburgh, this production goes to Bregenz, Austria for a further handful of performances.