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Death in Venice [La Monnaie/De Munt]
08 Feb 2009

Brussels’ Definitive Death

Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie / De Munt started 2009 by serving up a real New Year's treat for the Belgian capital's opera enthusiasts: a near-perfect staging of Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice.

Benjamin Britten: Death in Venice

Gustav von Aschenbach: Ian Bostridge; Traveller/Elderly Fop/Old Gondolier/Hotel Manager/Hotel Barber/Leader of the Players/Voice of Dionysus: Andrew Shore; Voice of Apollo: William Towers; Hotel Porter: Peter Van Hulle; Strawberry Seller: Anna Dennis; Strolling Player: Donal Byrne; Lace Seller: Constance Novis; Glass Maker: Richard Edgar-Wilson; Beggar Woman: Madeleine Shaw; English Clerk: Jonathan Gunthorpe; Restaurant Waiter: Benoît De Leersnyder; Guide in Venice: Charles Johnston. La Monnaie Chorus Solists. La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra & Chorus. Music Direction: Paul Daniel. Staging: Deborah Warner.


Before I enthuse about any other of the many wonders that combined to make this night an indisputable artistic triumph, pride of place simply must go to the superlative lighting design created by Jean Kalman. Were one to want to attend an unrivaled Masters Class in stage illumination, this would be the address. His perfectly judged effects were not only an integral part of the whole, but they seemed to inform and motivate the piece’s performance style with their chiaroscuro beauty.

Indeed, I will not soon forget the magical effect of a down-lit gondolier rocking in and out of focus as a shadow projection on the white mid-stage drop, as though the unraveling Aschenbach could almost, but not quite, remember. The back lighting of the boys’ Apollonian games was “brilliant,” in every sense. The intense white down-lighting of Tadzio’s dance solo, searing through his opaque clothing and temptingly silhouetting his lithe body, was genius. The complement of beautiful projections included shimmering waves, a blurry visualization of the famed Venetian skyline, and at times, a stage-wide wash of Aschenbach’s hand-written notes. This was arguably the finest lighting design I have experienced inside an opera house.

Tom Pye’s set design was no less remarkable, achieving marvelous results in the rapid succession of shifting locales with a very few carefully chosen pieces. Gondolas are suggested by a character simply sitting on luggage or the lip of the stage platform, with a pole-wielding gondolier standing behind and gently steering the imaginary boat. The utter simplicity of the three billowing diaphanous white curtains, perfectly suggested the airy hotel lobby with only the addition of a couple of potted plants and chairs. The no-man’s land of the dark opening scene, with its isolated lighting, black-draped furniture, and the lone word “Muenchen” projected on a suspended white square, soon enough gave way to a breathtaking “reveal” as the back drapes opened, and we were assaulted by a blinding amber lit sky.

The requisite ship’s deck was dominated by a huge smoke stack belching chemical smoke, a hanging net laden with cargo, and benches that were instantaneously disengaged from the black crepe of the opening moments. The all-important beach setting was wonderfully suggested with only the cyclorama and rolling black frame outlines of clothes-changing cabins. The stage for Act II’s show-within-a-show in the hotel was achieved with a simple platform and a backdrop on a pole hung between two supports. The threat of cholera was ominously represented by the shadow of a sliding black panel that traveled behind the mid-stage drape, coupled with a choking fog that oozed forth from the flies.

It is hard to overpraise the fluid scene change work by the stage crew and supers. Although one of the “sailors” did get caught in the cargo net as it began to fly, prompting another super to hiss “descends, descends” to the wings in a momentary departure from Myfawny Piper’s script!

One or two minor scenic miscalculations might yet be addressed in future performances. There was an odd display of low-hanging bare battens that slowly rose at the start of each act with an irrelevant piece of black drape attached stage left. Odd effect that at least quickly disappeared. And, please spike Aschenbach’s beach chair a few inches further upstage so that it doesn’t hang up the act curtain as it falls. But these are insignificant blips on the radar of a magnificent design achievement that includes the luscious black, grey and varied cream costumes by Chloe Obolensky.

Deborah Warner’s clean, forthright, and telling direction surely influenced the design choices and vice versa. This was a seamless collaborative effort from a production team that included a mighty contribution from choreographer Kim Brandstrup. It is difficult to know who developed the physicalized familial relationships with Tadzio, his mother and sisters, but they were lovely, and richly detailed. Branstrup chose to let the beach movement evolve, beginning with the boys playing ball rather randomly, and gradually morphing into more playful, dancerly moves which were always grounded in the coltish behavior of post-pubescent young men.

Among Ms. Warner’s many fine staging choices was having Aschenbach doze in his chair, “dreaming” the extended fantastical game/dance sequence at the end of Act I. There was a subtle, innocently homo-sexed undertone to the relationship between Tadzio (the vibrant Leon Cooke) and his roughhousing buddy Jaschiu (Riccardo Franco, also fine). The two of them made much of the critical scene of Tadzio’s rejection and defeat, which motivated Aschenbach to leap up, cry out, fumble his cane, and fall to a prone position, exactly mirroring the fallen youth. Beautiful.

As the dying Aschenbach crawls effortfully back into his chair, as Tadzio dances with new resolution toward the sea, as a Turner-worthy gold sunset fades ever so painfully slowly to black, this brought to a close a memorable artistic achievement. I did wonder if it was wise for Aschenbach to already appear a bit unhinged in the opening scene. And during the second barber visit when our leading character is persuaded to succumb to a makeover, I am not sure that handing him a drink was a good idea, as the prop ultimately gave the odd visual impression that he is drunk, rather than suffering from cholera or mad obsessions. In the “general housekeeping” category, it was an avoidable pity to have the work lights come up so we saw the just-dead Aschenbach get up behind the curtain, rather unceremoniously fetch his cane off the floor, and strike a pose to be revealed for his solo bow. But these are minuscule quibbles in what was a brilliant night.

All this stagecraft would have been for naught, had it not been matched by an equally marvelous musical achievement. The role of Aschenbach could have been written for the at times eccentric but considerable gifts of tenor Ian Bostridge. In fact, Britten created the role for the eccentric talents of his life partner, Peter Pears, who premiered it at the age of sixty-three (if my math is correct). Mr. Bostridge has a sizable enough lyric voice, produced with ease and clarity, capable of fine gradations of shade and volume. At least based upon this performance, he must be numbered among the finest actors in opera today, and if he sometimes rasps a bit, or shouts in heated passages, or spreads the tone for effect, it is wholly in service to the drama. While I can occasionally find his over-weighted word pointing and erratic musical phrasing problematic in some of his recorded standard recital repertoire, in this quirky role it proves a mighty asset.

For the composer seems to have created a marathon monologue, interrupted by scene work. It is heavily centered on declamatory, conversational presentation from our lead. Perhaps because lyrical outpourings and arching lines were not Pears’ forte, especially not at that stage in his career, Aschenbach is virtually all “talk” at which, happily, Bostridge excels. Indeed, I cannot imagine a finer current exponent of this role than Ian Bostridge.

The tour de force of the combined seven bass-baritone roles to be sung by one performer finds a willing accomplice in the excellent Andrew Shore. Throughout the evening, Mr. Shore is secure of voice, fleet of foot, and game for anything. He found a unique approach within each diverse character by creating inventive stage business, not the least of which was his provocative Leader of the Players who deployed his unruly concertina to various comic ends, including suggesting a dangling phallus.

Of the many minor roles, standouts include counter-tenor William Towers for his secure and pure Apollo; baritone Jonathan Gunthorpe, for his urgent, intensely voiced warnings as the English Clerk; and the sympathetic Beggar Woman of Madeleine Shaw. All of the many smaller parts were uniformly well-sung by soloists drawn from the fine Monnaie/Munt chorus, well-schooled by Piers Maxim.

The whole of this complex, often spare, rhythmically challenging score was conducted with a sure stylistic hand by Paul Daniel. The talented pit musicians responded with inspired results, not least of which was the exposed piano work by Martin Pacey, restlessly and characterfully churning under so many of the recitative segments.

If I still find this piece to be more cerebral than emotionally engaging; more dramatically interesting than tuneful; more to be admired than loved, that is not the fault of this definitive production, the company’s latest opus in a seriously adventurous season. Can you name any American company that could survive (and sell out) a succession of Pelleas, Cenerentola, Rusalka, La Calisto, Le Grand Macabre? (Nope, didn’t think so…)

What with the dire economic news, and the need (real or imagined) to appeal to subscribers and new patrons alike with more and more bread and butter operas, perhaps the days of encountering such caviar fare as Britten’s last major theatre piece are numbered.

But for now, Happy New Year! Woo-hoo! We have been treated to a sensational interpretation of Death in Venice that would just be pretty damn hard to beat.

James Sohre

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