Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Death in Venice @ Coliseum, London

24, 26, 31 May, 2, 5, 7, 9, 13 June 2007

Death in Venice

Death in Venice (Photo: Neil Libbert)

English National Opera’s new staging of Death in Venice is a triumph. With productions like this in the repertoire, they really can count themselves as a company that competes with the very best. Director Deborah Warner has produced a stunning interpretation of Britten’s final opera that deserves to stay around for a long time to come. The young conductor Edward Gardner couldn’t have chosen a better start to his tenure as the ENO’s Musical Director.

The staging is quite beautiful and summons up the most memorable images from the simplest means. As the scenes unfold in their episodic way, tableau after tableau ravishes the eye. Warner’s regular collaborators, Tom Pye (sets) and Jean Kalman (lighting) make major contributions to the evening and the beautifully costumed and choreographed crowd scenes are brilliantly handled.

The musical vistas are equally effective as Gardiner magnificently draws out the wonderful colours of the score, with its imaginative percussion writing based on Balinese gamelan, and Britten’s varied textures evoking landscapes, internal and external, conjured up through the relatively small conventional forces. Britten’s opera, closely following Thomas Mann’s novella, is full of contrasts light and dark, purity and decay, discipline and chaos, the ridiculous and the sacred and, perhaps most of all, late middle-age and youth.

The big question hanging over this revival concerned the latter, with the casting of a star tenor 20 years too young for the main protagonist. The stunted, blocked mind of the ageing artist freed by the god-like grace and beauty of the boy is a crucial aspect of the story and Ian Bostridge‘s performance undoubtedly lacks a dimension because of his relative youth. The painting of Aschenbach in the final scenes, where he replicates the vanity of the old/young fop that he despises so much, doesn’t make a lot of sense here. But, if Bostridge doesn’t answer “the austere demands of maturity”, he brings to the role all his characteristic intelligence and sensitivity and his lack of years just means his performance has scope to grow over time. It is a compelling performance, beautifully sung, with elegant phrasing and exemplary diction, rendering surtitles unnecessary.

The same can’t be said of the chorus, some of whose singing is weak and unclear, with the offstage work too distant, and some of the minor character roles not registering as fully as they can. Peter Coleman-Wright, in the multiple baritone parts, also doesn’t quite make his mark. In the Player scene, he is characterful but most of the time rather nondescript, the significance of his reappearances getting lost. Better are Iestyn Davies, an earthbound Apollo with a full and resonant counter-tenor, and a finely-sung English Clerk by Jonathan Gunthorpe.

The “one-sided affair” between Aschenbach and Tadzio is more ambiguous than ever with a strong emphasis on the boy as a figure of inspiration, rather than sexual attraction. The choreography of the youths is exciting and energetic and never fey, as Ashton’s were in the original production. The Games section, which can cause something of a lull just before the interval, is pure magic and also saw the chorus do its best work of the evening.

We’ve had to wait a long time for a fresh production of this masterpiece in London but the wait has been worth it.

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