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Scene from Death in Venice [Photo by Tristram Kenton]
17 Jun 2013

Death in Venice by ENO

‘Beauty is the one form of spirituality that we experience through the senses.’ In Thomas Mann’s, Death in Venice, Plato’s axiom stirs the hopes of the aging, intellectually stale poet, Gustav von Aschenbach, that he may rekindle his creativity.

Death in Venice by ENO

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Scene from Death in Venice [Photo by Tristram Kenton]


In the event, it is Socrates whose words prove more germane: ‘beauty leads to passion, and passion to the abyss.’ Upon such tensions and apprehensions rests Aschenbach’s fate.

First heard 40 years ago, Britten’s setting of Mann’s novella remains a deeply troubling work. The intertwined threads linking beauty and annihilation, Hellenic love and ravaging disease are discomforting. Aschenbach falls prey both to his self-destructive yearning for the Polish youth, Tadzio, and, we presume, to bodily decline hastened by the rotten strawberries of the Venetian fruit seller and the cholera which is latent in the very waters which define Venice’s beauty. And, we cannot help but be aware, just as there were autobiographical origins to Mann’s tale, so the elderly, ailing Britten — by dramatizing the final days of an esteemed writer who finds his creative powers to be waning and seeks renewal through an encounter with a youth of exceptional loveliness — was to some extent telling his own tale, returning to a theme that had been latent in his work for so long. As one reviewer of the first production put it, ‘was Britten not risking self-parody?’

Uneasy yet seductive, Deborah Warner’s 2007 production manages to suggest both sumptuous exquisiteness and melancholy starkness. The stage is largely bare; all is suggested by movement and light. The black waters shimmer paradoxically; dreary mists hang low and damp, alleviated by sudden bursts of hazy, orange sun; shadowy gondoliers emerge and recede; drapes billow in breezes which drift through the Lido hotel. Austere greys predominate, but textures are rich and tactile. Set designer Tom Pye, lighting designer Jean Kalman and video designer Finn Ross have created a ravishing hinterland — hovering between land and sea, between dream and reality; and we traverse effortlessly through the external locale, just as we move through the inner landscape of Aschenbach’s psyche.

So much depends on the performance of the tenor prepared to don the mantle of Aschenbach. Present on stage for almost all of the opera’s two and a half hours, the considerable physical and musical demands of the role are exacerbated by the psychological weight of the ghosts of former Aschenbachs, particularly Peter Pears. As Ned Rorem wrote: ‘Pears is a thread of the score’s very fabric … To imagine another in the role is to imagine a harpsichord piece played on an organ.’

John Graham-Hall comprehensively refuted Rorem’s misgivings, inhabiting the role with convincing dramatic presence and unaffected sincerity. It was the part which won him the 2012 Franco Abbiati prize for best male singer from the Italian National Association of Music Critics, and one could see why. Tall and thin, introverted and self-contained, dressed in an Edwardian pale suit, as he crumbled and disintegrated under the burden psycho-sexual anxiety, Graham-Hall was a visual emblem of the confrontation between Bourgeois Convention and Bohemian Chaos identified within Britten himself by W.H. Auden in an oft-quoted letter of the 1930s.

The gulf between Aschenbach and the other travellers and hotel guests was emphasised by Graham-Hall’s meticulously conceived body language and physical mannerisms. Moreover, the writer, ubiquitous cigarette twitching nervously, was frequently isolated at the front of the stage, the passing crowds of holidaying families negotiating the bustling esplanades and foyers beyond him, in sight but forever out of reach. The suggestion was that these passing vignettes were simply hallucinations, projections of Aschenbach’s wishful imaginings and lurid fears.

Aschenbach’s roaming soliloquies were supple and intoned with clarity; surtitles were absent and for once not needed. [The decision to dispense with surtitles was an admirable one; this is English opera, set by a master of English text setting, in the current home of ‘English National Opera’. If one cannot rely on the singers to communicate clearly here, where can one? However, in practice, while Britten’s recitative-like declamation and other solo lines could be clearly discerned, at times in the cavern of Coliseum, the multiple voices in the choral numbers diffused the words, and the richer orchestral palettes obfuscated.]

Graham-Hall aimed for clear resonance and direct communication; there was no exaggerated darkness in the tone, the middle register was focused, the top quite light. But this made the moments of despair all the more telling. After watching a victorious Tadzio triumph in the Games of Apollo, Aschenbach’s realisation that his feelings are tainted followed a dynamic orchestral crescendo and was shocking in its ferocity— ‘I love you’. Subsequently, after the Dionysian nightmare in which Apollo battles to preserve the writer’s Classical soul, Graham-Hall’s simple, pure reminiscence of Socrates’ tender dismissal of Phaedrus, accompanied by gentle harp accompaniment, was poignant but never sentimental.

As the composite Mephistophelian figure who sows the seeds of the southern sojourn in Aschenbach’s mind and then pursues him on his journey with menacing alacrity, Andrew Shore was superb. Encountered in the cemetery, the Traveller’s ‘Marvels unfold’ was both alluring and intimidating; characteristically, Shore’s Barber’s patter was slick and satirical. The Elderly Fop’s strident falsetto was ridiculous yet also discomforting — and it was a nice touch to whip off his ill-fitting toupee, directly challenging Aschenbach to acknowledge his own impending dissolution. As a Charon-like gondolier, Shore was gruffly dismissive; as the louche Leader of the Players his raucous hoot, as he led a band of unpitched voices and percussion in a laughing song, was horridly raw.

The minor roles were accomplishedly executed. Tim Mead was a mellifluous Voice of Apollo and Anna Dennis a splash of brightness and refreshing ease as the Strawberry Seller.

My only slight misgiving concerned the innately problematic Tadzio and the opéra ballet episodes. Mann’s Tadzio is an emblem of innocent beauty, a silent ideal, and his realisation in flesh risks destroying his pure neutrality. The grace of the dancers, choreographed by Kim Brandstrup, certainly emphasised the reckless, careless abandon of youth, as opposed to the introverted self-absorption of old age. And yet, at times Sam Zaldivar’s Tadzio — a Grecian silhouette of corporal perfection — was too knowing, too aware of his physical prowess and attractiveness. There was a hint of solipsistic athleticism, in the odd twist of the torso or backward glance, almost as if Tadzio was seeking to ensure that Aschenbach was watching his lithe muscular display. Such overt exhibitionism is too actively assertive; Mann’s Tadzio remains unaware of the effect of his innocence.

Conductor Edward Gardner’s achievement was considerable. He crafted the network of motivic connections and symbols into an aural kaleidoscope of myriad hues. Primitive percussive energies exploded into glistening expansive vistas; dry, constrained fragments were relieved by the exotic resonances of vibraphone and woodwind. From the dipping viola figurations of the gondola’s lapping paddles, as Aschenbach embarks upon his journey to ‘Serenissima’, Gardner was alert to every aquaphilic nuance in the score. After the violence of the tuba’s plague motif which hypnotises the dying Aschebach, much as the melancholy fog horn lures Grimes to a watery grave, the Hymn of Apollo mingled with ringing cries of Tadzio’s name in an beautiful orchestral postlude which almost washed away the shame and debasement.

There are only a few more performances. Make sure you don’t miss them.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Gustav von Aschenbach: John Graham-Hall; The Traveller/The Elderly Fop/The Old Gondolier/The Hotel Manager/The Hotel Barber/The Leader of the Players/The Voice of Dionysus: Andrew Shore; The Voice of Apollo: Tim Mead; The Polish Mother: Laura Caldow; Tadzio: Sam Zaldivar; Two daughters - Mia Angelina Mather, Xhuliana Shehu; Governess: Joyce Henderson; Jaschiu, Tadzio’s friend: Marcio Teixeira; Hotel Porter: Peter Van Hulle; Strawberry Seller: Anna Dennis; Guide: Charles Johnston; English Clerk: Marcus Farnsworth; Strolling Players: Anna Dennis, Adrian Dwyer; Conductor: Edward Gardner; Director: Deborah Warner; Set Designer: Tom Pye; Costume Designer: Chloe Obolensky; Lighting Designer: Jean Kalman; Choreographer: Kim Brandstrup; Video Designer: Finn Ross. English National Opera, London Coliseum, Friday 14th June 2013.

Click here for a photo gallery of this production.

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