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Death in Venice, English National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Death in Venice, English National Opera

Death in Venice, English National Opera

Gorgeous production, devastating central performance - Britten honoured

Man and boy: John Graham-Hall's devastatingly performed Von Aschenbach in Britten's operaImages © Johan Jacobs/ENO

Austere, beautiful, heartbreaking, streaked with genius - that goes for both Benjamin Britten’s last opera Death in Venice and Deborah Warner’s remarkable production of it for ENO, returning all too briefly to the Coliseum, with a superb central performance. Besiege the box office for one of the four remaining performances if you want to see contemporary operatic art refined to its most personal and powerful.

The story is well-known from Thomas Mann’s novella and Luchino Visconti’s classic film: the downfall of a mature novelist who visits Venice to break his writer’s block, and there falls in love with a teenaged boy and contracts cholera. Both are fatal to him. The combination of illicit love and a shadowy sickness is peculiarly Venetian, but how to stage this most lavish of cities on a bare opera stage?

death in venice hotelBy going even barer - and it’s fantastic. Warner’s six-year-old production indelibly captures Venice with a contradictory spareness. It’s almost all done in miraculous light and very sparse, sharp-edged scenery, moving across your vision as if seen in a zoëtrope. Projections of rippling water across a black wall, an unhealthily smoggy dawn over a flat sea, fluttering curtains for the Lido hotel (above), occasional poles and indistinct gondoliers - the physical setting is haunting, Tom Pye’s precise props backlit with Jean Kalman’s Apollonian lighting and a whiff of salt.

What makes the visual staging emotionally gripping, as well as admirably picturesque, is its actual state of flux and movement: in the orchestral passages between singing, people pass before your eyes, scenery constantly moves in and out, flunkeys silently appear. You feel, from your seat, as if you are yourself one of the strollers, passing by this tragedy, looking over your shoulder at it as Von Aschenbach constantly cranes to stare at Tadzio, realising that you too are a voyeur, and your own judgment is in constant flux.

It would be an extraordinary performance just in physical terms, even if Graham-Hall were not also making his voice so subtly suited to his character's indecisiveness

This approach brilliantly succeeds for a work that is more of a private monologue than an opera of public events and actions. The libretto Britten got from Myfanwy Piper is highly unusual (Alan Bennett explored some thoughts about this in his entertaining play about Britten and Auden, The Habit of Art), and Piper’s sometimes prosy, lecturing style is turned by Warner into a positive asset. She presents Von Aschenbach as a man entirely split within himself, giving us his version, pleading directly to us (as a jury on his actions) in mitigation for his abandonment of his own high standards, losing control of his trusty brains, humiliating himself.

The character's attraction towards the boy is famously hard to pitch and John Graham-Hall's assumption is magnetic, the eroticism smudged and ambiguous. He appears a thin, sandy, dry-skinned academic, proud of his reputation, pursing his lips in self-protection, smoking incessantly, evidently a man alone and easily self-embarrassed (pictured right).

death in venice graham-hallHe shows a remarkable command of body language. He adopts a hesitant swagger as he tells us of his willingness to experiment with life, then suddenly touches his mouth furtively as he draws on his cigarette, as if imagining a kiss. It would be an extraordinary performance just in physical terms, a Petrushka collapsing under a weight of sensual experience he is unprepared for, even if Graham-Hall were not also making his voice so subtly suited to his character's indecisiveness, mixing overtones of Bach's Evangelist, castrato and sometimes disconcertingly operatic tenor.

Graham-Hall also convinces in implying that the whole show is in Von Aschenbach’s mind, these pictures of travels, hotels, beaches, are his imaginings, his dreams, his novel - so that the tricky scene where the gods Apollo and Dionysus have their pompous interchange over his sleeping body and soul obtain a credibility: this man dreams like this, he really does.

So one comes to read his fixation on this vital, silent boy not so much as an illicit sexual urge as his wish-fulfilment for his own past life to have been different, not just written solitarily on the page, but experienced in rousing games on beaches with others. It is deeply pathetic, and perfectly judged.

Britten was, of course, a master-painter of the soul's high seas, and even the barometric atmosphere seems to quiver through the strings, or a clammy pulse through stuttering clarinet dissonances. Edward Gardner’s conducting of the ENO orchestra is faultlessly responsive and responsible, making the intentionally wide instrumentation and styles converge in imagination, the piquant gamelan of the boys and rambling intellectual piano for Von Aschenbach, the sparse female presence and the rudely assertive male pimps, all echoing the Apollo/Dionysus theme in a most sensuous, poignant way.

death in venice andrew shoreThe dances for the boy Tadzio and his friends are choreographed by Kim Brandstrup with an affecting combination of everyday vigour and soaring acrobatics. Young Sam Zaldivar is curly-haired and Greek-looking as per the libretto, able to pull off nonchalant no-hands cartwheels as well as a hallucinatory final solo as Aschenbach dies, seraphically turning graceful arabesques in silhouette against the fading sun. It fits into the whole, it vanishes in a perfect beauty into an exceptional production.

Andrew Shore (left, as Dionysus) is a masterful character singer who is variously sinister, insinuating, wheedling, corrupting and warning in his shape-shifting incarnations; Anna Dennis and Marcus Farnsworth also impress as the strawberry-seller and the English clerk. The evening is profoundly moving, and a masterpiece of contemporary theatrical production in Britten's centenary year.

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