thu 25/07/2024

Death in Venice, Royal Opera review – expansive but intimate evocations | reviews, news & interviews

Death in Venice, Royal Opera review – expansive but intimate evocations

Death in Venice, Royal Opera review – expansive but intimate evocations

David McVicar brings light and movement to gloomy Venice, but holds psychological focus

Gustav von Aschenbach (Mark Padmore) is entranced by Tadzio (Leo Dixon) All images Bill Knight

Death in Venice is usually a dark and claustrophobic affair. It lends itself to small-scale staging with minimal props and suggestive, low-key lighting. But for this new production at the Royal Opera, director David McVicar has taken a different approach. He has used all the resources at the company’s disposal to create a more expansive vision.

The results are suitably psychological, and atmospheric too, but a greater focus on dance and an ingenious set bring movement and flow to every scene. McVicar knows how to direct his singers too, and the near ideal casting for the two leads, Mark Padmore and Gerald Finley, makes this an impressive and innovative reimaging of Britten’s too rarely heard final opera.

The set (designer Vicki Mortimer) is a series of concentric arches, their classical columns giving a foreshortening effect. But the columns move, left and right, creating a range of spaces and settings. The columns also move as part of the choreography, a visually unsettling effect that allows the literal spaces to take on psychological dimensions. And that seems to be the main idea here. Costumes and props are all faithful to the early 20th-century setting, and Venice is evoked through full-sized gondolas (pictured below) and stonework arcades. But otherwise much is left to the imagination. Scene from Royal Opera Death in VeniceLighting (designer Paule Constable) is used evocatively. The beach scene has just a strip of blue backdrop to represent the sea, but comes alive through the low-level sun illuminating the action. The hotel scenes, too, are bathed in low sun, but now filtered through louver blinds. Choreography is an important part of this opera. Tadzio, the object of Aschenbach’s desires, is a mute role, danced with nonchalant elegance by Leo Dixon. But this production takes the dance element further, with choreographer Lynne Page transforming many of the crowd scenes. The choreography is classical, with broad gestures, all in keeping with the scale of the production. The Games of Apollo scene, where Aschenbach imagines the children’s beach play as Olympian games, is presented without fantasy imagery, relying on the dancing for evocation – which works beautifully. However, the sun god Apollo gets short-changed without a costume, presiding in just his swimmers. Fortunately, Tim Mead is a commanding presence, his countertenor suitably strident. The cast list is two pages long, but the opera usually seems like a two-hander, between the tenor role of Aschenbach (Padmore) and the baritone (Gerald Finley, pictured below), who plays seven of the characters that he meets in Venice, each a different manifestation of death. But the broader scale of this production breaks up that intimacy and brings many of the smaller roles – all excellently played – to the fore. Finley’s impressive acting is a mixed blessing too: He  embodies each of the roles so well – the fop on the ferry, the barber, the leader of the circus troupe – that it is easy to forget that we are meant to be inferring links between them.

Mark Padmore is on similarly excellent form as Aschenbach. Padmore doesn’t do much opera, but this role is perfect for him. As a recitalist, he is an acquired taste, often sacrificing beauty of tone for dry, almost spoken declamation. But that is exactly what Britten is looking for here. Many of the scenes are just Aschenbach to the audience, giving his inner monologue in bare recitative, with just a few percussion instruments beneath. Padmore is able to bring acute emotion to these scenes, without extravagance or lyricism, drawing the scale of the drama back down to the personal level.Gerald Finley as Elderley Fop

Richard Farnes leads a clear and focussed reading of the score. The percussion section of the Royal Opera House Orchestra gets a rare chance to shine, with the vibraphone, glockenspiels and piano particularly impressive. Britten’s evocation of gloomy, stricken Venice relies heavily on the lower strings, and their tone here is dark and focussed throughout. A backstage chorus bolsters the cast, and they often come out into the auditorium, giving extra impact to the often raucous crowd scenes. Each of those is a memorable moment, but the greatest strength of this production is the intimacy of Aschenbach’s monologues, all delivered with tender and often anguished emotion by Padmore: This Death in Venice is an ensemble piece, but he’s definitely the star of the show.


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