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Alan Oke as Gustav von Aschenbach [Photo by Robert Workman]
05 Nov 2013

Death in Venice, Festival of Britten

There might not be much ‘Serenissima’ about Yoshi Oida’s 2007 production of Death in Venice — it’s more Japanese minimalism than Venetian splendour — but there is still plenty to admire, as this excellent revival by Opera North as part of its centennial celebration, Festival of Britten, underlines.

Death in Venice, Festival of Britten

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Alan Oke as Gustav von Aschenbach

Photos by Robert Workman courtesy of Opera North


The strongest aspect for me is the way Oida economically and simply makes it palpably clear that the shocking demise that we witness, as esteemed writer, Gustav von Aschenbach, falls from his literary podium and sinks into disrepute and decay, is a case of deliberate or subconsciously willed self-destruction. Fatally lured by his alter ego — a fictitious composite figure, who is a reflection of Aschenbach’s desires, fantasies and uncertainties, and the very emblem of what he fears he may himself become — it is clear from the first that the die is cast for Aschenbach, his fate determined by his own failings: egoism, repression and self-denial.

So, in Oida’s production, before a note is played the mysterious Traveller takes his place in the cemetery, awaiting his victim, his overcoat and hat a mirror image of his prey’s attire. The wreath that he lays, as splash of colour amid otherwise monotone hues, is both a monument to a deceased artist’s creative achievement and a mocking foreshadowing of Aschenbach’s actual death. As the drama ensues, the doppelgänger will at times watch from the side-lines — symmetrically counter-balancing Aschenbach as he lounges in his deckchair admiring the foreign tourists who play and parade along the Lido — and, as he takes his fancy, enter into the action, effortlessly directing the protagonist to his doom. He does not conceal his deceit, changing his costume before our eyes. He dons the garish blazer of the Elderly Fop, the hooded mantle of the Gondolier, the smart suit of the Hotel Manager, the crisp white overalls of the Hotel Barber and the lurid, velvet checked robe of the Leader of the Players, but always he is the voice of Dionysus, overpowering Apollo with his Bacchanalian song.

Death-in-Venice-01.gifAlan Oke as Gustav von Aschenbach, Peter Savidge as the Old Gondolier

At this performance in the Snape Maltings concert hall, baritone Peter Savidge was absolutely superb as the multifarious tempter. His first phrase, ‘Marvels unfold’ was simultaneously alluring and menacing; his ghastly falsetto ‘Serenissima’ squeals were disturbingly insincere. Sneering, Savidge contemptuously emphasised Gustav von Aschenbach as he ‘welcomed’ the writer to his hotel, inferring his scorn for the writer’s reputation, wounding his already fragile self-worth. The Leader of the Players’ dissembling crooning whipped up a cacophony of shrieks, the very laughter of the devil, from the observing restaurant clientele; with rude, defiant mockery he refused to answer Aschenbach’s enquiries about the plague infecting Venice’s canals, but his departing, Mephistophelian glower, unexpected and appalling, left us in no doubt of the peril to be faced. Imperious and manipulative as the Barber, Savidge ultimately removed his workday wear to reveal once more the loud stripes of the Elderly Fop’s jacket and, derisively twirling his ebony cane, presented Aschenbach with a soul-destroying reflection of himself. The baritone adopted every dramatic and musical mode with attentiveness and confidence, slipping from persona to persona with disturbing ease.

Of course the principal spotlight is on Aschenbach himself, and in the title role tenor Alan Oke sang with compelling dignity and clarity. Despite a tendency to sing under the note, Oke found a range of colours which drew us into the character’s experience — no mean feat given the prosaic verbosity of much of Myfanwy Piper’s libretto, the irony third-person narrative of Thomas Mann replaced by solipsistic soliloquising. Thus, Oke’s opening recitatives were delivered in a sensitive mezza voce, and then he surprised us, booming his own name magisterially, shoring up his own identity before its imminent and inevitable collapse. When this passage was recalled in the final scene of the opera, the hollowness of tone was poignantly indicative of what has been lost.

The opening scenes felt rather slow — but that’s not Oke’s fault, things don’t really get going musically until the second Act — but he brought a wonderful, yet frighteningly ominous, relaxation to the self-admission, ‘So be it, so be it’, when Aschenbach determines to stay in Venice. Such emotional release rendered the end of Act 1 even more poignant as Aschenbach splashed in the waters, intoxicated by the alien flood of passion in which will soon wallow — his ruined shoes a pitiful forewarning of his ruined heart — before staggering from the stage, in silence, his steps mirrored by the knowing tread of the Traveller.

Death-in-Venice-03.gifAlan Oke as Gustav von Aschenbach, Emily Mézières as Tadzio, Riikka Läser as A Polish Mother, and Marie-Charlotte Chevalier as the Governess

The large cast was uniformly assured. As the English Clerk, Damian Thantrey’s confirmed that the cholera outbreak had taken hold with indisputable, clarion-like authority. Kathryn Stevens’ lustrous tone was even more ironic on the second occasion that she tempted Aschenbach with her baskets of sweet strawberries, the ripe juices now turned to toxin. In the smaller roles, David Llewellyn (Hotel Porter), Paul Gibson (Hotel Waiter) and Victoria Sharp (A newspaper-seller) sang with precision and character.

Tom Schenk’s set designs exploit the natural fabrics of the Maltings Hall for which the production was designed: a russet brick backdrop — perhaps the disintegrating walls of the buildings that line the putrid Venetian canals — and plain, raised wooden platforms, suggestive of the decking and promenades of the Lido. Paule Constable’s lighting scheme swathes the stage in a range of atmospheric tints: aquamarine blue evokes the glint of sun on glassy waves; soft yellow warms the youthful beach-side sports; cool purple suggests Aschenbach’s alienation from the tourists’ relaxed sojourns; blood-red illuminates the more Hadean moments. Aschenbach’s soliloquies are accompanied by a shrinking of the span of light to a bright white spot which glares down directly from above, unsparingly illuminating his self-deceptions and misery.

Sometimes things feel rather too ritualised. Two black-jinbei clad actors (costumes, Richard Hudson) move chairs and other props with ceremonial poise, at times miming a gondoliers’ balletic dance, on occasion their punting poles turning into burning torches, lighting Aschenbach’s passage to hell. At other points, they seat themselves at the sides or facing upstage, passive squatting Buddhas. As the Old Gondolier — an ebony-cloaked Charon — speeds the writer to his destiny, white-clad ferryman enact a slow t’ai chi-style routine. The dance sequences themselves seem overly long, but this is probably unavoidable and Daniel Kurz’s choreography effectively emphasises athletic power and grace; there is nothing sexually suggestive about the muscular routines, and the playful splashing in the water which laps beneath the wooden platforms suggests freedom and lightness of spirit.

Death-in-Venice-08.gifAlan Oke as Gustav von Aschenbach, Christopher Ainslie as the Voice of Apollo, Emily Mézières as Tadzio, Dancers: Claire Burrell, Danilo Caruso, Marie-Charlotte Chevalier, Anna Chirescu, Mark Farrant, Daniel James Greenway, Jamie Higgins, Eithne, John Ross, Tom Neill, Pablo Woodward, and the Chorus of Opera North

However, I really can’t understand the casting of Tadzio: Emily Mézières danced with lithe elegance but, while she may be of androgynous physique she does not possess a male adolescent’s muscular presence. Including female dancers among the exuberant band of carefree holidaying companions upsets the balance a little, but would be tolerable; but, Mézières, for all her agility and physical eloquence simply does not stand out sufficiently from the crowd — she embodies neither conventional feminine ‘allure’ nor the knowing charm of a confident male pubescent. Almost asexual, it was not at all clear why such a figure would drive Aschenbach to self-annihilation.

This anomaly was most striking at the end of Act 1, when Christopher Ainslie’s imposing, noble Apollo was not just heard but also seen during the youthful pentathlon: the text he sings, with resonating directness, reminds us of Plato’s theories of Beauty, but the decision to cast a female dancer as Tadzio runs counter to the Hellenism in the libretto, a dimension which is expressed even more strongly in Mann’s novella.

Where the ‘ritual’ does work, however, is during some of the choral and ensemble scenes. The families from Russia, Germany, Denmark and other nations are often assembled like a picture postcard or still life, as time stagnates for Aschenbach while the dancers provide a vigorous counterpoint to his sterility. During the Dream sequence, the crowds arrange themselves at the front of the stage, and as Apollo extinguishes his burning staff, his purifying flames defeated by Dionysus’ licentious energy, the onlookers are infected by the latter’s dissolution and their rising cries become the unbridled voice of Aschenbach’s own moral recklessness.

During this Dream passage the playing of the Orchestra of Opera North was terrifyingly vivid. In the first Act the contrast between the dry pianism which accompanies Aschenbach’s arioso and the lushness of the ‘Serenissima’ motifs and Tadzio’s gamelan-like exoticism seemed underplayed, and the view motif scarcely registered. But conductor Richard Farnes pulled out the stops after the interval, and there was much striking and accomplished playing, particularly in the instrumental passage at the start of Act 2, with its deep, dissonant pedal disturbing the orchestral sweetness above.

As he begins, it is with silence that Oida ends. Once the final notes of the score have faded and the lights have dimmed, Oke rises and leaves the stage with ponderous resignation; it is hard to imagine closing moments which could more painfully expose human frailty.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Gustav von Aschenbach, Alan Oke; Traveller, Peter Savidge; Voice of Apollo, Christopher Ainslie; English Clerk, Damian Thantrey; A Polish mother, Rükka Läser; Tadzio, Emily Mézières; Dancers, Claire Burrell, Danilo Caruso, Marie-Charlotte Chevalier, Anna Chirescu, Mark Farrant, Daniel James Greenway, Jamie Higgins, Eithne Kane, John Ross; Actors, Tom Neill, Pablo Woodward; Ship’s steward and Restaurant Waiter, Dean Robinson; Hotel Porter, David Llewellyn; Lido Boatman and Hotel Waiter, Paul Gibson; A French mother, Vivienne Bailey; French daughter, Sarah Blood; A German mother, Hazel Croft; A German father, Stephen Dowson; First American, Peter Bodenham; Second American, Stephen Briggs; A Polish father, Edward Thornton; A Danish lady, Rachel J Mosley; An English lady, Miranda Bevin; A Russian mother and A newspaper-seller, Victoria Sharp; A Russian father, Gordon D Shaw; A Russian nanny, Cordelia Fish; A guide in Venice, Nicholas Butterfield; A lace-seller, Sarah Estill; A glass-maker, Campbell Russell; A beggar woman, Claire Pascoe; Gondoliers, Arwel Price, Jeremy Peaker, Paul Rendall; A priest in St Mark’s, Edward Thornton; Strolling Players, Gillene Butterfield, Nicholas Watts; Director, Yoshi Oida; Conductor, Richard Farnes; Revival director; Rob Kearley; Set designer, Tom Schenk; Costume designer, Richard Hudson; Lighting designer, Paule Constable; Choreographer, Daniela Kurz; Revival choreographer, Katharina Bader; The Orchestra of Opera North. Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh, Saturday 2nd November 2013.

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