With a major new production at ENO in the Spring and two semi-staged performances this month, Britten’s final opera is making a long overdue return to the London stage. At the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Richard Hickox conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra in an absolutely thrilling account of this wonderful score.
In a year that hasn’t been short of great performances, this is an event I will remember for a long time to come. I first saw this opera in the late ’70s in the original production with Peter Pears. I was bowled over then by the beauty of the score and there was something very poignant about seeing Pears in it just a couple of years after Britten’s death. That performance was saved for posterity on a recording that must serve as a benchmark for subsequent artists.
Philip Langridge seems to be the natural successor to Pears in the role of Gustav von Aschenbach. He has sung it in concert before and I just hope we get the chance to see him again in a fully-staged version before it’s too late. The ENO will be using the much younger tenor Ian Bostridge in May and this is a lost opportunity to see Langridge in what is surely a great stage performance.
He brings tremendous sensitivity and artistry to the role, every word clear and elegantly delivered. The bewilderment he displays as the ordered, disciplined man plunged into chaos by the discovery of unexpected feelings is very moving and his final disintegration and death overwhelming.
Joining Langridge in this concert performance is Alan Opie in the multiple baritone roles. Opie, who played the same roles in the Glyndebourne touring production in the early 90s, is splendid as the strange collection of characters he’s called upon to play. He brings variety and beauty to each clearly defined characterisation.
The third principal is the counter-tenor who sings the voice of Apollo and William Towers’ is another impressive and beautifully sung performance.
If I have one minor quibble, it is the placing of the chorus at the rear of the orchestra. While this is the obvious place for them, it means that the minor characters, drawn from the youthful and talented Philharmonia Voices, are cut off from the principals and these small but vital characterisations get slightly lost. When the roles are more substantial the English Clerk, the Hotel Porter, and the Strolling Players they are brought to the front of the stage but the myriad of gondoliers, street vendors and Venetian citizens can’t connect with the leads across the expanse of the orchestra and, while it is probably unavoidable, it is a casualty of the concert approach.
There are so many extraordinary sounds in Britten’s score, from the contemplative moments with just tenor and piano to the gorgeous gamelan-like percussion that accompanies each appearance of the boy Tazdio, and the emotional impact is enormous.
It is customary nowadays, in our paedophilia-obsessed society, to talk endlessly of Britten’s attraction to teenage boys, something that undoubtedly runs throughout his works. While it can’t be ignored completely, I won’t dwell on it, although this work is a culmination of his exploration of feelings that are now more taboo than ever. He must have been aware that this would be raked over for years to come and he was brave to include so much of himself in his work.
This was a highly memorable performance of a neglected work by Britain’s greatest 20th Century composer. I hope that these two evenings pave the way for a successful revival at the Coliseum next year and that this opera will stay in the repertoire for many years to come. There will also be a staging at The Aldeburgh Festival next year conducted by Paul Daniel, which must be worth a trip to Suffolk.