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Benjamin Britten: Death in Venice
20 Apr 2006

BRITTEN: Death in Venice

Even if this recording were a failure (which it isn't), it is indispensable on account of its inclusion of about 90 seconds of music not present in the only other studio recording.

Benjamin Britten: Death in Venice

Philip Langridge (tenor), Alan Opie (baritone), Michael Chance (counter tenor), BBC Singers, City of London Sinfonietta. Richard Hickox, conductor.

Chandos 10280(2) [2CDs]

$35.99  Click to buy

The tenor lead, Gustav von Aschenbach, sings a series of recitatives reflecting on the events as they unfold around him. The first of these, “I have always kept a close watch over my development as a writer..,” occurring in the opening scene in which he makes the first of his many wrong decisions, was cut at the premiere and the recording on Decca/London. The broadcast tape from the second ever performance on 22 June 1973 (available on Opera D'Oro OPD-1418) omits the passage as well. This new recording conducted by Richard Hickox is welcome in that it includes the passage as well providing the first re-examination of the opera in thirty years.

Britten's last major work, Death in Venice is an intense opera but more intellectually than dramatically so. As drama it plays awkwardly. The appearance of Apollo in the first act, for example, is an unexplained fantasy unlike his reappearance with Dionysus in act two as part of Aschenbach's dream, which makes more sense. Death in Venice is also a drama of inaction. Aschenbach never speaks to the boy Tadzio who so obsesses him. In fact the only thing that seems to do something is the cholera epidemic that infects and kills Aschenbach. But musically, Britten's score is alive with drama; and this recording captures the musical characterizations of people, places and events that, as Aschenbach learns, mere words cannot express. Chandos also offers sharper and more detailed sound, the individual instruments clearly defined and adding character to the storytelling. One example is the percussion (brushes scraped across the timpani) that ingeniously create the sound of the steamer transporting Aschenbach and the Elderly Fop across the water into Venice. Another is the Venetian overture in scene 2 [track 5] that begins with a watery barcarolle leading into fanfares echoing Venice's golden age. Other themes, which are allocated to specific instruments that signify characters and events (like the vibraphone for the non-singing Tadzio or the sinister tuba theme depicting the spreading epidemic), are highlighted.

Vocally, the opera must be dominated by the tenor singing Aschenbach and by the virtuoso baritone who undertakes the seven roles that figure in Aschenbach's intellectual, moral and physical death. As Aschenbach, Philip Langridge (who at 66 was actually 2 years older than the role's creator Peter Pears was when he recorded his interpretation in 1974) has a fresher and freer voice than his recorded predecessor. His interpretation is also more involved. Right from the start, Langridge sounds as though he feels his various predicaments. Slightly stressing the word 'on' in the opera's opening words “My mind beats on,” he similarly colours each phrase to suggest a confused, distressed and eventually pain-wracked man. This naturally makes his Aschenbach more passionate such that the few moments when he nearly addresses Tadzio throb with intensity. Alan Opie's Fop is less caricatured than John Shirley Quirk on the previous recordings; but the percussion, as mentioned, almost doubles for the Fop's wheezing and sneering innuendo during this scene. Opie's is a dark voice and he sings the various characters Aschenbach meets with equal restraint. All less grotesque but no less sinister than is customary.

The most obvious difference is the advance in recording technology since 1974. Hickox is emerging as the new champion Britten conductor and the Chandos recording shows up the stunning orchestral clarity he ensures in performances and recordings allowing the listener to appreciate Britten's musical scene painting even more.

Michael Magnusson

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