Notes and Editorial Reviews
Also available on Blu-ray
Deborah Warner's beautiful and evocative production of Britten's final operatic masterpiece has been acclaimed as an 'exquisitely achieved marriage of music, drama and design' (The Independent). In Britten's luminous and compelling interpretation of Thomas Mann's classic novella, the ageing writer Gustav von Aschenbach's infatuation with the Polish boy Tadzio and his subsequent decline are portrayed in a 'remarkable and harrowingly believable' performance (The Guardian) by John Graham-Hall, who had already won golden opinions for singing the role of Aschenbach at La Scala. The superb ENO chorus and orchestra are conducted by Edward
Gardner, a long-standing champion of Britten's music.
DEATH IN VENICE
Gustav von Aschenbach - John Graham Hall
Traveller / Elderly Fop / Gondolier / Barber / Hotel Manger / Player / Dionysus - Andrew Shore
Apollo - Tim Mead
Tadzio - Sam Zaldivar
The Polish Mother - Laura Caldow
Two Daughters - Mia Angelina Mather / Xhuliana Shehu
The Governess - Joyce Henderson
Jaschiu - Marcio Teixeira
English National Opera Chorus and Orchestra
Edward Gardner, conductor
Deborah Warner, stage director
Recorded live at the London Coliseum, June 2013
Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Sound format: LPCM 2.0 / DTS 5.1
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: English, French, German, Korean
Running time: 153 mins
No. of DVDs: 1
R E V I E W:
BRITTEN Death in Venice • Edward Gardner, cond; John Graham-Hall (Aschenbach); Andrew Shore (Traveler, Elderly Fop, Old Gondolier, Hotel Manager, Hotel Barber, Leader of Players, Voice of Dionysus); Tim Mead (Voice of Apollo); English Natl Op O & Ch • OPUS ARTE 1130 (DVD: 153:00) Live: London 6/18, 21, 24/2013
Benjamin Britten’s last opera, Death in Venice, has never really caught on, except perhaps in England itself. It has appeared twice at the New York Met, but the last appearance was some 20 years ago. I don’t believe it ever sold out the house. Based on a rather pretentious novella by Thomas Mann, the story seemingly does not adapt well to the operatic stage. The main conflict is an internal one for the aged main character, Gustav von Aschenbach, between powerful homoerotic lust for a young boy and the desperate desire to maintain his dignity and moral rectitude. Scene changes are so numerous the opera requires 17 short tableaus, a stage director’s nightmare. Britten’s score is also rather quirky and austere as befits the story, and lacks much melody. There are really only three singing roles, although the chorus is quite busy in several of the tableaus. Most of the heavy lifting (or singing) is done by the old man and a deus ex machina who appears in several roles and seems to be propelling Aschenbach relentlessly to his fate (the title perhaps might reveal a clue as to that). Still in all, it is quite an engrossing drama to see once, and this English National Opera (ENO) production provides quite a good representation of it.
Accolades should go to stage director Deborah Warner, set designer Tom Pye, and costume designer Chloe Obolensky for the rapid, efficient scene changes and the eye-catching look of the staging. Most of the action occurs in and around Venice: on the beach, in the hotel, and in the city itself. The evocative perception of these settings is conveyed cleverly yet opulently with only the judicious use of a few props and curtains. Aschenbach’s erotic interest, the young boy Tadzio, and his chums on the beach are portrayed by dancers, so that Britten has ample opportunity to employ the orchestra without bothering the singers. Aschenbach surreptitiously follows the boy’s Polish family around: the mother with her parasol, two daughters, the boy, and a governess, all mute roles. They reminded me of a family of ducks parading constantly back and forth across the stage. If one’s attention sometimes flags, it is due more to the story itself than ENO’s creative staging.
None of the singers is vocally challenged by Britten’s score, though perhaps taxed for stamina, so consummate actors are the order of the day. The difficult role of Aschenbach, with all his internal struggles, is rendered powerfully here by John Graham-Hall. If Graham-Hall is not always completely successful in communicating the heat of his obsessive passion for the boy (they never talk) or his internal agonizing, it is at least partly due to what he is given to sing. Although Britten always claimed his declamation was based on natural inflections of speech, much of it doesn’t sound very natural, at least to these non-Brit ears. The multiple roles of the rather enigmatic propeller of Aschenbach’s fate are a bit reminiscent of the multiple, but singularly sung, villains in Tales of Hoffman. The role(s) is taken here by baritone Andrew Shore. Shore sings well and seems just creepy enough to give the story the proper feel of existential angst and ambiguity it requires. The third major singing role is that of the Voice of Apollo, the personification of Aschenbach’s rational and moral side, opposed to Shore’s Dionysus of licentious appetite. Sung here quite well by countertenor Tim Mead in one of the opera’s few arioso passages, the rather trite and overused convention of arguing inner voices at least retains some interest. As with many modern operas, Britten gives the orchestra a major role, and the ENO forces under Edward Gardner respond admirably (as do the choristers). Special mention also needs to be made of young dancer Sam Zaldivar, who portrays the boy Tadzio seductively, but with an athletic grace of movement. I watched with English subtitles, but they certainly weren’t necessary, diction is very clear and Britten never overpowers the singing with dense orchestration. Subtitles are also available in French, German, and Korean.
For a rather obscure opera, Death in Venice seems to have been served well on video. First came a 1981 Tony Palmer film that was supposed to give Britten’s life companion, tenor Peter Pears, his chance to record the role. In the event, Pears was invalided by a stroke and was replaced, apparently most admirably, by Robert Gard. Baritone John Shirley-Quirk is also mentioned as being very fine in the role of the Traveler, et al. There is also a 1990 Glyndebourne production, and a 2008 production from La Fenice in Venice itself, both of which received good reviews and both still available. I must confess I have seen none of these competitors. The La Fenice set is available in high definition Blu-ray, just as this Opus Arte disc. I may only have the inclination or opportunity to see Death in Venice once, and this handsome and well-performed ENO production certainly proves a fine way to do so. Recommended.
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Works on This Recording
Death in Venice, Op. 88 by Benjamin Britten
Tim [Countertenor Vocal] Mead (Countertenor),
John Graham Hall (Tenor),
Andrew Shore (Baritone),
Sam Zalvidar ()
English National Opera Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1973; England
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