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31 May 2007

Death in Venice at ENO

Deborah Warner’s new production of Death in Venice is ravishingly beautiful, with stunning lighting designs by Jean Kalman who manages to capture the spirit of every facet of Venice and of the drama’s more general themes, from the misty eeriness of Aschenbach’s first gondola ride through to ominous darkening skies and blazing sunsets.

Benjamin Britten: Death in Venice

English National Opera, 24 February 2007

Above: Ian Bostridge as Aschenbach (Photo: Copyright English National Opera and Neil Libbert)


Against this backdrop, Ian Bostridge’s Aschenbach is vocally extraordinary, using his unique other-worldly voice to its best sensual advantage in response to this man’s yearning for the ability to be a part of the beauty of his surroundings.

But there is always a sense here that Aschenbach is not really experiencing Venice for himself: the opera becomes almost a solo drama with the rest of the ensemble as a mere, if glorious, backdrop. More worryingly, the staging’s overwhelming visual beauty and meticulous attention to detail means that Aschenbach’s internal disintegration is almost an afterthought, instead of being the drama’s principal theme. There is a proliferation of style over substance, a feast for the senses but very little for the soul to hold on to or be moved by.

One big thing missing is any genuine sense of erotic allure in the portrayal of Tadzio. The role is danced gracefully enough by Benjamin Paul Griffiths, but not enough thought has been given to the need to place him on a pedestal, to enable the audience to experience whatever indefinable quality it is which captivates Aschenbach. In the group of athletic boy dancers there are two or three who look and move in very much the same way, so Tadzio is often lost in the crowd. Indeed, when Iestyn Davies’s Apollo makes his first appearance the sudden presence of genuine homoerotic allure is so revelatory that one wonders what the purpose of Tadzio has been during the preceding hour or so.

There was a chance that cohesion could have been achieved through the multiple baritone roles, sung here by Peter Coleman-Wright. However, rather than develop the roles as different incarnations of the same sinister character, they are too cleanly defined and individually characterised, and as a result become merely a set of character vignettes which contribute little to the overall shape of the piece.

While Tom Pye’s set designs have a meticulous regard for atmospheric detail which is mirrored in the ensemble direction and choreography, the same cannot be said either for the orchestra (under Edward Gardner in the first production of his tenure as ENO Music Director) whose first-night playing seemed harsh and detached from the action, or for the chorus, whose ensemble singing was scrappy and well beneath their usual standard.

Though on the surface this production had everything, it was deeply frustrating in its failure to amalgamate the internal downward spiral of Bostridge’s extraordinary Aschenbach with the ensemble performance and ravishing surroundings. Ultimately, it failed to create a coherent whole – even from a set of almost faultless ingredients.

Ruth Elleson © 2007

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