13 Oct 2019

Mark Padmore reflects on Britten's Death in Venice

“At the start, one knows ‘bits’ of it,” says tenor Mark Padmore, somewhat wryly, when I meet him at the Stage Door of the Royal Opera House where the tenor has just begun rehearsals for David McVicar’s new production of Death in Venice, which in November will return Britten’s opera to the ROH stage for the first time since 1992.

He jokes that his wife - the designer, Vicki Mortimer, whose period sets for McVicar’s production we will see in November - probably knows Britten’s opera better than he does, but by the end of our conversation it’s clear that Mark’s preparation for and reflections on the role of Gustav von Aschenbach - and the ‘meaning’, or ‘meanings’, of the opera and the novella by Thomas Mann on which it is based - have been extensive and that he is deeply absorbed in the score and text.

I ask Mark if this is a role that he has had in his sights for some time, and he replies with characteristic diffidence: “There aren’t that many operatic roles that I can sing - my voice isn’t really an operatic voice.” Esteemed for his performances as the Evangelist in Bach’s Passions, Mark has sung some smaller roles in Baroque works as well as performing the roles of Don Ottavio in Peter Brooks’ staging of Don Giovanni in Aix-en-Provence (1998) and Tom Rakewell in The Rake’s Progress at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie (2010). He has also sung Peter Grimes, in 2008 at the St Endellion Festival in Cornwall of which he is Artistic Director, and he tells me that, while the role is more frequently considered a Heldentenor role these days, he doesn’t feel that it need be. Indeed, the Telegraph’s Rupert Christiansen, though doubting ‘whether he has the welly to project Grimes convincingly in a major opera house’ found that ‘in the intimacy of St Endellion, he was enthralling, singing with consummate intelligence and sensitivity (“Now the Great Bear” was heart-stopping) and presenting the lonely fisherman as a haunted, helpless victim of his own darker urges’.

But, Mark had to wait until 2013 for his first major operatic role in Britain when he performed the part of Captain Vere in the revival of Michael Grandage’s 2010 staging of Billy Budd at Glyndebourne. It’s clear that he found this an immensely rewarding experience, but he seems a little surprised by the acclaim that his own performance garnered. One critic commented that he ‘projected the full force of Vere’s complex character while giving unparalleled sweetness of tone and crafting of melodic phrases’ declaring Mark to be ‘a worthy wearer of the mantle of Peter Pears’; another wrote that ‘his musicality is faultless and his rendering of the textual nuances crystalline: what a feeling artist he is’. When the production subsequently transferred to New York, Mark’s performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music earned him Musical America’s 2016 Vocalist of the Year award.

Mark has also been an advocate for modern opera and for new works. He enjoyed singing in the double bill of Harrison Birtwistle’s The Corridor and The Cure (in 2015, at the Aldeburgh Festival and the ROH’s Linbury Theatre) - Mark later remarks that while Birtwistle’s music is difficult and time-consuming to learn, the composer writes well for the voice - and was the Third Angel/John in the revival George Benjamin’s Written on Skin at Covent Garden in 2017. In 2018 he sang in the world premiere of Tansy Davies’ Cave , giving a performance, I recall, of astonishing vocal and physical commitment. Mark remarks that the venue - Printworks, the former south-east London home of a newspaper printing-press - played a large part in the impact of the performance, but while that’s certainly true I remember that it was his own performance as the questing protagonist that made it so compelling: ‘Whether lyricising or crooning, speaking or howling, clapping or whistling, every utterance was delivered with care and sensitivity; and, the purity of his voice was immensely touching, creating credibility and empathy for a character whose situation and intent might seem distanced from our own experiences.’

Our conversation turns back to Thomas Mann’s and Benjamin Britten’s protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach, the celebrated writer whose self-discipline and ideals are undermined by a vision of Beauty in the form of a young Polish boy Tadzio whom he encounters during a visit to Venice; Aschenbach subsequently submits to his passionate impulses, releasing opposing inner forces which ultimately destroy him. Is it a ‘difficult’ role, vocally, expressively and emotionally? Mark immediately opens his vocal score at the first page. “I can’t sing these lines without thinking Tristan,” he says. “I can almost hear the Tristan-chord.” It’s a pertinent point, as Mann, who repeated explored the corruptive force of passion in his writing, was fascinated by Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde - the opera (and myth) which served to illustrate the 20th-century Swiss philosopher Denis de Rougemont’s warning (in his 1939 book, Passion and Society), that the aesthetic preoccupation with passion can be destructive. Moreover, in a letter to Carl Maria Weber, Mann had explained that his aim in Death in Venice was to achieve an ‘equilibrium of sensuality and morality’.

I suggest to Mark that at the heart of Mann’s novella and Britten’s opera are complex, troubling questions about the relationship of Beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual life. Mark’s response prompts me to see Aschenbach’s - and by implication the singer’s - journey not just as literal one, to the South, but also as an ethical one, an idea strengthened when he mentions Bach’s St Matthew Passion and the way a singer reflects on the experience of which the Evangelist sings, as Christ journeys towards death.

Death in Venice is driven by the play of antagonistic forces - Apollonian and Dionysian - as Aschenbach’s creativity, stagnant and sterile, is stimulated by ideal Beauty, releasing opposing compulsions: aesthetic sublimation and physical consummation. That’s why, as Mark explains, “Britten’s notes really matter.” He points to the recurring harmonic ambivalences and semitonal dissonances in the score that articulate this battle of incompatibles, particularly the opposition of the pitches G♮ and G# and their related harmonic areas. Mark turns quickly to the closing scenes of Act 1, at the point where Aschenbach has determined to leave the city: as Tadzio walks through the hotel foyer, Aschenbach regrets that this is the last time he will see the boy: “May God bless you.” “Aschenbach sings the notes of Tadzio’s motif, but the final note is G♮, not G#,” Mark observes, “but then it’s immediately ‘corrected’ in the strings. It’s like the worm in the rose.”


Britten’s score is indeed densely motivic in this way, so much so that I previously described the score as holding its creators, performers, protagonists and listeners in the ‘claustrophobic embrace’ of inescapable tragedy. Mark comments on the significance of the Traveller’s ‘Marvel’s unfold’ theme, which heralds the arrival of the stranger whose intoxicating song, “Go, travel to the South”, fills Aschenbach’s “tired heart” with “inexplicable longing” and compels him to submit to his restlessness. Even though Aschenbach seems rarely to reflect on the Traveller once he has embarked on his journey, the ‘Marvels unfold’ motif permeates the score. (It infuses the ‘Serenissima’ motif introduced by the Youths on board the boat that transports Aschenbach to Venice; and the tuba’s ‘plague’ theme.) Mark turns to the scene in Act 2 where Aschenbach pursues Tadzio and his family through the streets and waterways of Venice, right to the door of Tazdio’s room into which the boy has just disappeared. At this point, Aschenbach must linger outside the door, he explains, because of what is conveyed by the oboe motif. It’s to these details, he feels, that some directors are not attentive; moreover, some singers seem concerned more with ‘singing the notes’ than with the expressive and dramatic implications embedded in the musical language, and are happy simply to ‘be directed’.

“It’s really important to remember that Britten and Mann were meticulous,” Mark says, and it’s clear that he’s reflecting not only on the need to perform ‘accurately’ what Britten wrote, but also on the ‘meaning’ that Britten’s music expresses, often ambiguously, and how this can be communicated in the theatre. He raises Aschenbach’s acknowledgement and acceptance of his feelings in the closing bars of Act 1. During the beach games scene, Apollo’s ethereal, disembodied voice has reached out to Aschenbach as he watched the children’s athletic games: “He loves beauty who worships me.” Aschenbach glories in the ideal he has witnessed; when Tadzio passes him on the way to the hotel, Aschenbach finally understands the truth: “I love you.” I’ve previously commented on the way the apparent harmonic conclusiveness (E major) is disturbed by the lingering G♮ which concludes the three rising notes which Aschenbach sings on the word “I”, but Mark suggests that the falling major third, “love you” (G#-E) is more significant than I suggest: “It’s important in the theatre. After all the unfolding and yearning of Act 1, this statement prepares the audience for the exploration of what has been revealed in Act 2.” As the ‘theorist’, I’m convinced by the practitioner’s argument!

I ask Mark whether the role poses any particular vocal challenges? “With Vere, I occasionally had to push my voice a little, but here I don’t feel any strain.” He raises an interesting idea about Aschenbach’s dry, declamatory style: “Is this vocal irony?” I reflect on Mann’s employment of an objective narrator, but one who adopts a subtly critical perspective. There is no such distancing in the opera, and Mann’s narration is replaced by Aschenbach’s recitative monologues, and in the first of these - the writer’s proud presentation of himself, “I Aschenbach, famous as a master writer, successful, honoured” - is undermined by the trumpet’s mocking commentary. Aschenbach’s address is defiant, but even here, in the opening pages of the score, he is vulnerable: his dignified declamation lacks self-knowledge, and the severity of his vocal style does indeed seem ironic. Mark points out, too, that Aschenbach rarely speaks to any of the other characters in the opera, which leads me to speculate on the possibility of an ‘abstract’ production which might present the action as taking place entirely in the writer’s own mind.

Mark suggests that, lacking a grand, rousing ending, the close of the opera is in a way anti-climactic, and I add that so often in Britten’s operas at the close the tensions are unresolved - in the drama but often in the music too. I recall that in November 1975 Britten returned to Venice, having completed his Third String Quartet the preceding month; the final part of the quartet is called ‘Serenissma’ and the score resonances with echoes of Death in Venice, especially Aschenbach’s “I love you” motif which is reiterated in countless torturous permutations. In the final two bars of the Quartet, the viola and cello resist the efforts of two violins to assert an unequivocal tonal centre, and the work ends with a semitonal discord. “I want the work to end with a question,” Britten said, and I suggest to Mark that all Britten’s operas end with a question! Moreover, as Mark - who has been re-reading Mann’s early short stories and parts of Buddenbrooks - observes, both Mann and Britten return to the same themes and symbols again and again: an endless revisiting of intractable moral and aesthetic concerns in search of evasive resolution.

Is Mark’s interpretation informed by other performances or productions, I wonder? He did see Deborah Warner’s 2007 ENO production, with Ian Bostridge in the title role (I saw this production in 2013 when John Graham-Hall sang Aschenbach), and has listened to Philip Langridge’s performance as conducted by Richard Hickox on the Chandos label, and the original Decca recording with Peter Pears - though he suggests that Death in Venice is not an opera that lends itself well to recording. “It’s more a case of just working through the score and learning the notes.”

McVicar will present the opera ‘in its period’, the 1910s, which Mark feels is appropriate, not least because it prompts us to reflect on what the opera ‘means’. “Today, most people are comfortable with issues that in the past were problematic and accept things such as same-sex marriage; but we’re not comfortable with paedophilia.” Does he think that audience members may bring with them images from Visconti’s 1971 film, in which Aschenbach, now a composer, was played by Dirk Bogarde and his suffering so associated with the music of Mahler? “Well, it’s about the need to look beneath the surface; much like with Venice itself.” Indeed, the opera’s moral dilemma is in many ways embodied in the floating city, which, in Mann’s novella, carries disease - Asian cholera - in the very thing which defines its beauty.

One element in the production that does allude to the cinematic or visual is the presence on the beach of a period cine-camera, reminding us, as Mark explains, of the significance of ‘looking’ and ‘the gaze’ in both the novella and opera. Indeed, when Aschenbach is first confronted by the haughty Traveller, the narrator remarks that he seems to stare at Aschenbach, ‘so straight in the eye, with so evident intention to make an issue of the matter and outstare him’, and Aschenbach’s ‘relationship’ with Tadzio is purely visual.

As our conversation draws to a close, I ask Mark the inevitable question about his future plans and whether there are any works - operatic or otherwise - that are still on his ‘to do’ list. It’s clear that he does find Grimes tempting, but isn’t very hopeful of an opportunity arising, and he’d like very much to sing Vere again. He reflects on how much longer he will go on performing: he has another St Matthew Passion on the horizon but wonders if that might be his last performance of that work. “If I can keep singing Britten, Schubert and Bach, that’s enough.”

Mark seems a little surprised by my final question: is he excited about the forthcoming Death in Venice production? Noting that in the 2017 production of Written on Skin he was part of collective ensemble in a fairly busy production, he smiles, “I guess it will be my premiere here.”

There will be five performances of David McVicar’s new production of Britten’s Death in Venice at the Royal Opera House, from 21st November to 6th December.

Claire Seymour