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William Dazeley as the Old Gondolier and Paul Nilon as Aschenbach [Photo by Clive Barda]
23 Jun 2015

Death in Venice, Garsington Opera

Given the enduring resonance and impact of the magnificent visual aesthetic of Visconti’s 1971 film of Thomas Mann’s novella, opera directors might be forgiven for concluding that Britten’s Death in Venice does not warrant experimentation with period and design, and for playing safe with Edwardian elegance, sweeping Venetian vistas and stylised seascapes.

Death in Venice, Garsington Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: William Dazeley as the Old Gondolier and Paul Nilon as Aschenbach

Photos by Clive Barda


And yet, risks have been taken, with surprising and stimulating results. Yoshi Oida’s 2007 production is more Japanese minimalism than Venetian splendour, and when revived by Opera North at Snape in 2013, Tom Schenk’s set designs exploited the natural fabrics of the Snape Maltings Hall for which the production was designed. Deborah Warner’s 2007 ENO production, though the stage is largely bare, manages to suggest through movement and light both an exquisitely sumptuous décor and a melancholy barrenness of soul.

Kevin Knight’s designs for Paul Curran’s new production for Garsington Opera offer both orthodox Venetian motifs and striking abstraction. A sand-coloured floor curves up, like a wave in the lagoon, meeting a Turner-esque blue sky; upon the horizon, the familiar shoreline is intermittently projected. Bruno Poet’s lighting bathes the shore in golden sunbeams, then bleaches it with the pallor of sickness; the gleaming beauty of La Serenissima casts its heavenly illumination, before the dull shadows of canal-borne disease darken the hues.

The stage is bare; in place of set and props we have four billowy white curtains which intersect on the diagonal, wafting in the nascent scirocco humidity. These curtains serve to separate Aschenbach from reality, to trap him in the cold sterility of his intellect. Their whiteness is both the creative purity of Apollonian discipline and the emotional emptiness of a life repressed. They part to reveal the city and its inhabitants; they frame the gondola that bears him southwards; they close to prevent communication. So far, so good: but the ceaseless swishing back and forth of these drapes becomes rather tedious after two and a half hours. And sometimes the abstraction is imprecise or misleading. As Aschenbach strolls dejectedly amid the suburbs of an imagined Munich, the Traveller appears in an imagined cemetery; but, through the drifting chiffon we glimpse smartly dressed tourists promenading along the Venetian strand – is Aschenbach envisioning a journey that he does not yet know he will shortly undertake? The absence of a set also necessitates the never-ending carriage of esplanade benches, hotel sofas, anteroom palms and other paraphernalia to suggest the various locations in which Aschenbach’s demise unfolds.

150618_0269-deathinvenice-adj.pngCelestin Boutin as Tadzio and Nina Goldman as Polish Mother

There’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. Indeed, movement takes centre-stage in this production, in which Curran and his choreographer Andreas Heise prioritise and supplement the opera’s dance episodes. The choreography for the five male dancers blends classical balletic grace with striking muscularity. The powerfully persuasive gestures draw just about everyone into the dance: Tadziu’s mother (Nina Goldman), governess (Georgie Rose Connolly), siblings (Minna Althaus and Poppy Frankel), even the strawberry seller (Emily Vine) are swept up in the athletic arabesques.

The set-pieces hook our attention but, in their erotic evocations, often go far beyond the allusion and suggestiveness of Myfanwy Piper’s libretto and Britten’s score. Apollo is no longer a disembodied voice, but rather appears in person, attired in golden cloak and laurel crown – both a deity of pure light and a dangerous sun-god – to oversee the Games which bear his name, and which are watched by a chorus of sinister Carnival-goers: harbingers of death, clad in black hooded cloaks and gold-leaf masks. Tom Verney’s countertenor is not a voice of ethereal purity or the honeyed mellifluousness of Elysium, but his unearthly cries certainly emphasise the ‘unnaturalness’ of the god’s pronouncements, sending a chill down the spine if not always complementing the beauty of the beach Games’ vigour. Here, Heise’s gestures drew directly and precisely upon the text: the running race was a frenetic tumult of ‘flashing forms’ and ‘working arms’; the dancers used astonishing elasticity to ‘spring high’ and ‘shoot forward’ in the long jump; ‘swinging up and back’, they swirled hypnotically in the discus. The tightly wound formations of the final game reached the height of erotic tension: ‘forehead to forehead/ fist to fist/ limbs coiled around limbs/ panting with strain’, they youthful competitors lifted Tadziu aloft, to the pervasive reverberations of harp, double bass, pizzicato cello, gong and tom tom.

These Games of Apollo anticipate Aschenbach’s subsequent Dionysian dream. Again, the gods do battle, not within the writer’s troubled psyche, but on the stage before us, as the revellers’ shrieks, ‘Aaoo!’, blend with the violently pulsing uproar of the drums and the terrible sweetness of the flute. Although Piper had initially noted that it would be necessary to ‘avoid the obviousness of the homosexual theme’, she later made the well-intentioned but somewhat naïve suggestion that during the second beach ballet the boys should be ‘really naked so as to remove the whole thing slightly from reality, as the whole of Aschenbach’s attitude is removed from reality’; Britten thought this was an excellent idea, which ‘could be wonderfully beautiful, Hellenically evocative’, but the plan was later, and perhaps fortunately, abandoned. Curran, however, follows Piper’s suggestion and the Dream ends with Tadziu being stripped of his sailor-suit by the carousing hordes, who caress and writhe around his naked legs. Hellenic evocation seems far from Curran’s mind in this Dionysian nightmare …

Even the Travelling Players’ suggestive lewdness is transformed into outright vulgarity, as four male dancers indulge in mock offensiveness, raising their skirts to expose their be-trousered behinds to the hotel guests, and engaging in faux sodomy.

The remarkable central energy in the production is Celestin Boutin’s mesmerising Tadziu. It’s impossible to state unequivocally how old Tadziu should be or look but, despite his blond curls – which, like some of the visual vignettes, seem to allude to the first performance by dancer Robert Huguenin to whom Peter Pears’s Aschenbach fell victim – Boutin’s physical maturity and strength, and sheer brazenness, foreground the physical over the spiritual. Mann’s text formulates a theory relating beauty to man’s spiritual and intellectual purity: beauty partakes in a higher reality, a world beyond corruption where the artist seeks to create his work. Boutin, however, is too physical to be god-like; not a statuesque divinity but a mortal tempter.

150618_0389-deathinvenice-Edit-adj.pngPaul Nilon (Aschenbach) with Company

Boutin’s first entrance did convey a timeless immobility; the drums were silenced by the shimmering vibraphone as he stepped slowly across the stage, relishing the onlookers’ admiring gaze. Certainly, Britten and Piper suggest that Tadziu shares the incipient knowingness and coquetry of Miles in The Turn of the Screw; he is on the cusp of sexual awakening. But, Boutin boldly exults in the intensity of veneration. Moreover, by making Tadziu mute, Britten suggests that any communication and consummation between Aschenbach and the Polish boy is impossible: he is not a ‘real’ boy, but an idealization. In Curran’s vision, though, Tadziu’s allure is all too ‘flesh-and-blood’. The score’s invitational glances become physical advances, most notably at the end of Act 1 as the boy reaches out to brush the straining fingertips of the infatuated Aschenbach.

In the title role, Paul Nilon presents an astonishingly powerful portrait of physical and moral decline. Nilon’s tenor is dark-coloured and plangent, and he delivers the writer’s self-castigating monologues with unwavering dramatic focus, smoothing over the florid verbosity of Piper’s lengthy, high-falutin monologues with their heavy-handed symbolism and indulgent Hellenic philosophising. Every word is clearly enunciated and the free recitatives are thoughtfully phrased.

Nilon’s Aschenbach is the embodiment of emotional anguish – and, surprisingly animated, swinging wildly from joy to despair. The self-restraint of the opening moments is quickly swept away by fatal passion; this Aschenbach does not languish in the hinterland, wearied and depleted by his self-consuming devotion, but endeavours to engage directly with the object of his adoration. Denied, by a hair’s breadth, the ecstasy of physical touch at the end of Act 1, his howl, ‘I – love you’, drains into a desperate sob: the moral and artistic discipline which have upheld his entire life have been brutally shattered by self-honesty, as foreshadowed by the Traveller at the start of the Act, when he tears and scatters the pages of the esteemed writer’s book before throwing the latter disparagingly to the ground. In Act 2 Nilon’s decline is rapid and disturbingly palpable; and it is enhanced by the potent lighting design as Poet takes advantage of the looming darkness, conjuring volatile shadows which convey the protagonist’s fragmentation and torment. After his visit to the barber, Aschenbach abandons all pretence, clutching frenetically at the alarmed hotel guests as they prepare to depart, seemingly indifferent to his own humiliation and disgrace.

William Dazeley is excellent in the composite role of the Traveller-Elderly Fop-Gondolier-Hotel Manager-Barber-Leader of the Players-Dionysus, metamorphosing between these disparate incarnations with sinister ease. Dazeley’s bass may not quite be sufficiently deep-toned for the Hadean Gondolier, but he was firm-voiced and authoritative as the mysterious Traveller and bright and energised as the Hotel Manager, transforming his voice skilfully. The falsetto of the Leader of the Players and the Barber eerie echoed the Elderly Fop of Act 1, confirming the compound figure’s role as a deathly herald.

In the minor roles, baritone Henry Manning was a fine English Clerk/Youth, announcing the arrival of the cholera with clarity, while tenor Joshua Owen Mills was a confident, bright-voiced Hotel Porter. The Garsington Chorus was superb, suavely embodying the European clientele at the Lido Hotel and forming an impassioned band of Dionysian followers. As hawkers and beggars, they straggled along the esplanade, pestering and troubling the protagonist; as youthful travellers, they soothingly crooned the Serenissima theme.

150618_0575-deathinvenice-2-adj.pngWilliam Dazeley (Leader of the Players) with Company

Undoubtedly, the coherence and impact of this production owes much to conductor Steuart Bedford. Bedford conducted the first performance of the opera at the Aldeburgh Festival on 16th June 1973, and the passing of forty-two years has only served to strengthen his appreciation of the role of precise motivic and timbral details within the overall structure, and of the musical and narrative trajectory of the work. We heard every instrumental detail, the Garsington Opera Orchestra playing with intensity and precision. Flamboyant harp glissandi, throbbing timpani outbursts, the dark rumbles of the tuba, penetrating string lines and eloquent woodwind solos created a concentrated sound-world which drew us into the evolving psycho-drama. But there was warmth too, as when the ‘view theme’ expanded with a softening gleam.

Some productions err on the side of ambiguity and elusiveness, the suggestive exoticism of the score counterbalanced by the text’s Platonic theorising. For, while one might suggest that in Death in Venice Britten located an explicit account of the energies which had for so long been strong undercurrents in his operas, there remains an evasive mist and there is little direct disclosure in Piper’s libretto.

But Curran doesn’t hedge his bets – the forces released when Aschenbach opens the heart which has for so long been imprisoned by artistic discipline and repressive self-respect are dark and deadly. When Britten was composing Death in Venice – during which time he was suffering from acute heart arrhythmia – Peter Pears is reported to have told the Australian painter, Sidney Nolan: ‘Ben is writing an evil opera, and it’s killing him!’ And, Curran presents us with what Ronald Duncan called ‘the public revelation of a private agony’; the danger Duncan foresaw when ‘imagination and reality become fused and identified’ is painfully played out. The final image is a disquieting master-stroke: lured by the enticing silhouette of Tadziu visible through the gauzy white hanging, Aschenbach leans forward, arms outstretched – but, at the moment that it seems their hands might at last touch, the lighting abruptly switches, the profile fades and all that remains for Aschenbach is his own lurching shadow.

Aschenbach had hoped, ‘The power of beauty sets me free’. In the event, it is Socrates whose words prove more germane: ‘beauty leads to passion, and passion to the abyss’. Curran seems to be urging us to ask, as did Peter Pears[1], if the pursuit of beauty and love must always lead only to chaos?

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Gustav von Aschenbach, Paul Nilon; The Traveller, William Dazeley; The Voice of Apollo, Tom Verney; Hotel Porter, Joshua Owen Mills; English Clerk, Henry Manning; Polish Mother, Nina Goldman; Tadzio, Celestin Boutin; Governess, Georgie Rose Connolly; Jaschiu, Chris Agius Darmanin; Conductor, Steuart Bedford; Director, Paul Curran; Designer, Kevin Knight; Lighting Designer, Bruno Poet; Choreographer, Andreas Heise;Garsington Opera Orchestra and Chorus; Parsifal James Hurst, Garth Johnson, Alexandre Gilbert, Ygal Jerome Tsur (Dancers). Garsington Opera at Wormsley, Buckinghamshire, Sunday 21st June 2015.

[1] Tony Palmer’s 1980 film, A Time There Was.

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