08 Dec 2019

Death in Venice at Deutsche Oper Berlin

This death in Venice is not the end, but the beginning.

In the opening scene of Graham Vick’s 2017 production of Britten’s Death in Venice for Deutsche Oper, Gustav von Aschenbach finds himself at his own funeral.

An oversize black and gilt funerary frame projects a monochrome photograph of Thomas Mann, whose visage gazes out across a chorus of mourners, their sombre black tempered only by a round wreath of white lilies. This wreath will transform itself into Tadzio’s laurel crown, when he is victorious in the Games of Apollo; then, a gaudy necklace linking the duetting Players - “O mio carino, how I need you near me”; and, subsequently, the barber’s mirror, dexterously angled for Aschenbach to admire his youthful new coiffure. When the increasingly deluded - in this production almost deranged - Aschenbach thrusts his head through the scented circle, it seems to become a noose, foreshadowing his demise.

Deutsche Oper first scene.jpgIan Bostridge (Aschenbach). Photo credit: Bettina Stöß.

Much within Stuart Nunn’s single set - a lime-green box, with entrance-exit doors left and right, and lit with lurid tints of yellow and purple by Wolfgang Göbbel - is similarly protean. Black chairs serve as gondolas and children’s playthings, just as Britten’s Elderly Fop reappears as the Gondolier, who becomes the Hotel Manager, who shape-shifts into the Leader of the Players. The seventeen scenes of the opera ebb and flow like the tide on the Lido beach. Yet, there is scant visible representation of the waters on which the city is built: the water which is the source of both the city’s beauty and its decay. Instead, an outsized cluster of violet-hued tulips, their petal-edges curling and blackening, lie stricken. They later serve as the sickness-laden strand of the Lido; their canker is the city’s corrupting cholera.

As the aging, angst-ridden Aschenbach, Ian Bostridge might have wandered in from a Schubert lied, an impression deepened by the presence of the on-stage piano: a wanderer, an outcast, this Aschenbach was a liminal figure, singing from elsewhere, the ‘other side’, trapped within the story - dream or actuality, who knows? - of his own death. And, with characteristic and potent performative immersion, Bostridge coloured the text, ‘bent’ the melodic lines, surged, sometimes snarled, through the increasingly emotive utterances of delusion, desolation and defeat. He swayed and staggered, leaned back and curved forward; he reclined against and then climbed onto the piano. Yet, while at times almost overcome by his awareness of loss of dignity and unalleviated despair, in the recitatives Bostridge’s Aschenbach stood erect and sang with vocal pristineness and clarity of thought - even if it was the lucidity of a deluded mind in self-denial. At such times, Bostridge moved to the fore of the stage and sang directly to us. His stare was unwavering, unnerving, as if Aschenbach was facing his own image in a mirror which would brook no dishonesty.

Traveller and IB.jpg Seth Carico (as the Traveller) and Ian Bostridge (Aschenbach). Photo credit: Bettina Stöß.

There is little communication, in either Mann’s novella or Myfanwy Piper’s libretto, between Aschenbach and the other characters, but here the distancing of the protagonist seemed even more pained and severe than is customary. Frequently his fellow tourists would turn their backs on the writer and gaze seawards; when the barber came to refresh his client’s ‘youthfulness’, Aschenbach stood behind, regarding the cosmetic mime with hubristic pleasure.

Bostridge made Aschenbach’s mental and moral disintegration evident from the very start. His proud pronouncement, “I, Aschenbach, famous as a master-writer, successful honoured, self-discipline”, was less an assertive self-definition, and more an angry riposte. He clutched the strange Traveller when he sang of the South, and of the “terror” in the bamboo grove - “a sudden predatory gleam, the crouching tiger’s eyes"; he allowed the Gondolier to stroke his hair and shoulders, as his fellow travellers’ gentle sway intimated both the rocking waves and the gesture of caress.

A on tulips.jpgIan Bostridge (Aschenbach). Photo credit: Bettina Stöß.

Taking off his shoes and socks, rolling up his elegant trousers, Aschenbach strolls along the poisonous promenade; when the strawberry-seller appears atop the tulip mound to extol her wares, Aschenbach gorges on the red fruit. The children’s games turn spiteful: they steal the writer’s shoes and toss them back and forth like a beach ball. The young playmates’ movements blend stylisation and naturalism: Rauand Taleb’s Tadzio is lithe and strong, his lofted body thrown and caught by his friends, his victorious form hoisted heavenward. Having calmed himself, accepting that his vocation demands that he must “dedicate [his] days to the sun, and Apollo himself”, Aschenbach settles down to observe the physical embodiment of his revered Hellenic beauty, only to be confronted with the children’s taunting game of ‘pyramid building’, their splayed limbs dangling erotically across the tulips, deepening the petals’ purple bruises.

Aschenbach watches Tadzio.jpgIan Bostridge (Aschenbach). Photo credit: Bettina Stöß.

Apollo - a potently penetrating Tai Oney - may shine a light, from a cameo-light camera, to illuminate Aschenbach’s way but it is too late: he is lost … in a moral maze whose minotaur is Eros. It is not clear in this production what is remembered or what is real. Tadzio (Rauand Taleb) does not seem to see Aschenbach, but the latter is provoked by an imagined or intimated smile. After the Players’ grotesqueries, Tadzio seats himself under Aschenbach’s desk, and the writer imagines a communion of like minds: “Ah, little Tadziù, we do not laugh like the others. Does your innocence keep you aloof, or do you look to me for guidance?” Bostridge made the end-of-Act 1 declaration, “I love you”, strikingly assertive: there was a sense of release, then a brief hint of brazenness, and then a look of horror: what had been acknowledged could not be unsaid, nor the consequences evaded.

Tadzio and Apollo.jpg Rauand Taleb (Tadzio) and Tai Oney (Apollo). Photo credit: Bettina Stöß.

When the curtain rises on Act 2, a viciously scrawled “Achtung” shrieks its warning from the rear wall, its dripping ink as viscous as the city’s black waters. Wolfgang Göbbel’s lighting casts a surreal sheen on the Dantesque figures who haunt the hinterland, grimacing and lurching as they fall prey to city’s choleric clutches. And, as Aschenbach obsessively follows Tadzio and his family through the city, both the indignity and recklessness of his pursuit are embodied by the cesspit of writhing bodies - the lapping water - at his feet.

During the Dream sequence, Dionysus (Seth Carico) removes his shirt and squares his shoulders at the besuited Apollo, before a nightmarish dervish ensues, worthy of the Hieronymus Bosch allegories that I had found so disturbing in the Gemäldegalerie earlier that afternoon. And, there is much chest-baring in this production. Tadzio and his young friends posture and pounce with a boisterousness verging on, and spilling over into, aggression, as Tadzio is baited and doused with water. Similarly, on the boat to Venice, Aschenbach’s fellow travellers break out in vulgar songs which here seemed to have a repressed violence in their rhythmic energy, equal to the mutinous dynamism of the shanties in Billy Budd.

Seth Carico as Elderly Fop.jpgSeth Carico (as Elderly Fop). Photo credit: Bettina Stöß.

As the eerie composite figure who haunts Aschenbach, Seth Carico’s voice was as mutable as his costume was candidly uniform: black, with merely the occasional addition of a camp feather boa or hat to distinguish his incarnations. Vocally, Carico was a disturbingly elusive Traveller; then, as the repulsive Elderly Fop, he exhibited a silken baritone which flipped upwards with startling slickness to a falsetto both astonishing and atrocious. After the lively duplicity of the Barber and the firm, forthrightness of the Hotel Manager, Carico’s Leader of the Players was lewd and bellicose - discomfortingly so as he held up a titillated customer’s chin lasciviously, leeringly, before delivering a cruel slap to the proffered cheek. Another pitiful onlooker had his shoes removed and his feet crammed into stilettos - a reminder of the bare-footed Aschenbach’s humiliation, perhaps - and his neck wreathed in the Leader’s glitzy feather boa. As he stumbled drunkenly to the lurching rhythms of the ghastly song, “How ridiculous you are!”, the troupe’s drum-beat “Ha!”s seemed literally to flagellate and shame.

Wreath.jpgIan Bostridge (Aschenbach). Photo credit: Bettina Stöß.

Although Death in Venice is essentially a one-man show, Britten asks for a large cast and here those taking the smaller roles were excellent. Samuel Dale Johnson was particularly impressive as the English Clerk, piling up chairs agitatedly as he revealed, with an anxious tinge and good projection, the malignity which would menace Aschenbach should he stay in Venice. As the provocative Strawberry Seller soprano Alexandra Hutton’s sales pitch had a freshness that her fruit certainly did not share. Andrew Dickinson was accomplished as the Hotel Porter.

Conductor Markus Stenz drew some surprisingly dark colours from the Orchestra of Deutsche Oper. Usually the elements of Britten’s score which strike me most are the flashes of colour and brightness from harp, glockenspiel, vibraphone, bells, xylophone; on this occasion, I was sucked into the oily blackness of bassoon, bass clarinet, low strings, trombones and tuba: just right for Vick’s scheme of things.

The production and performance had many merits, but this was, inevitably, Ian Bostridge’s evening. Having been so moved by Mark Padmore’s performance in David McVicar’s new ROH production , I feel very fortunate to have heard two of the greatest English tenors of recent years perform this role in two very different productions, just a couple of weeks apart.

DinV final scene.jpgIan Bostridge (Aschenbach). Photo credit: Bettina Stöß.

Towards the close, there was an intimation that Aschenbach had found some peace: “Does beauty lead to wisdom, Phaedrus?/ Yes, but through the senses./ Can poets take this way then/ For senses lead to passion Phaedrus?/ Passion leads to knowledge/ Knowledge to forgiveness/ To compassion with the abyss.” Bostridge delivered such contemplations with the sweet softness of the gentlest lied: clear, tender, true. But, this moment of purity was followed by a terrible irony and bitterness. The latent violence finally broke through the barriers of social restraint. The flickering rivalry between Tadzio and his friend Jaschiu (Anthony Paul) caught fire, and the ensuing fight left Tadzio lying prone, unmoving, his limp form far from his former Hellenic statuesque-ness. Aschenbach clasped the boy in his arms; when the had departed this life, so the writer made his own last exit.

Some productions subtly intimate that, with his death, Aschenbach has found inner reconciliation and become one with “the sea, immeasurable, unorganised, void” in which he has longed “to find rest in perfection”. Vick’s re-imagining of the close denies the writer, and the audience, any such consolation. I found myself recalling the reflections (in an essay ‘The Romantic Song’) of Roland Barthes: ‘The lied’s space is affective, scarcely socialized: sometimes, perhaps, a few friends - those of the Schubertiades; but its true listening space is, so to speak, the interior of the head, of my head: listening to it, I sing the lied with myself, for myself. […] The lied supposes a rigorous interlocution, but one that is imaginary, imprisoned in my deepest intimacy.’ This Aschenbach seemed so utterly, terribly alone, inside his own song of death.

Claire Seymour

Britten: Death in Venice

Gustav von Aschenbach - Ian Bostridge, Traveller/Old Gondolier/Hotel Manager/Elderly Fop/Hotel Barber/Leader of the Players/Voice of Dionysus - Seth Carico, Voice of Apollo - Tai Oney, Tadzio - Rauand Taleb, Strawberry Seller - Amanda Hutton, Hotel Porter - Andrew Dickinson, English Clerk/Polish Father, Russian Mother/Lace Seller - Flurina Stuckl, French Girl/Newspaper Seller - Meechot Marrero, Danish Mother/Street Singer - Samantha Britt, English Mother - Joanna Foote, French Mother - Michelle Daly, German Mother - Irene Roberts, Russian Nanny - Anna Buslidze, Polish Mother - Lena Natus, Glassblower - Gideon Poppe, Gondolier/Street Singer - Marwan Shamiyeh, Second American/Gondolier/Hotel Guest - Matthew Peña, Hotel Guests (Helen Huang, Anna Huntley, Karis Tucker, Ya-Chung Huang, Stephen Barchi), First American - Michael Kim, Beggar - Davia Bouley, Lido Boatman/Waiter - Timothy Newton, Steward/German Father, Tourist Guide - Matthew Cossack, Gondolier - Philipp Jekal, Onstage Pianist - Adelle Eslinger, Onstage Musicians - Kelko Kido-Lerc, Sebastian Molsen/Friederike Roth, Jaschiu - Anthony Paul, Tadzio’s sisters - Ebru Dilber/Mimi Nowitzki, Tutor - Anne Römeth, Friends of Tadzio (Maximillian Braun, Joshua Edelsbacher, Alexander Gaida, David Lehmann, Per Kreutzberger, Alexander Shanck), Young Girls - Victoria Kraft/Selina Senti, Venetians (Cristiano Afferri, Marco Ordovas, Danilo Valentini); Director - Graham Vick, Conductor - Markus Stenz, Designer - Stuart Nunn, Lighting Designer - Wolfgang Göbbel, Choreographer - Ron Howell, Choir and Orchestra of Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Deutsche Oper Berlin; Thursday 5th December 2019.