Notes and Editorial Reviews
John Neumeier‘s free adaptation of Thomas Mann‘s novella “Death in Venice” for the marvellous dancers of the Hamburg Ballett walks a fine line between astute theatricality and melodrama, between brilliant passages of movement and banal gestures. The primary message is that the life of an artist - even a famous, successful one - can be hell unless he‘s in creative touch with his inner child, his emotions.
Johann Sebastian Bach, Richard Wagner
DEATH IN VENICE - A DANCE OF DEATH
Soloists: Elizabeth Cooper (piano)
Orchestra, Chorus: Hamburg Ballett
Director: Thomas Grimm
Choreographer: John Neumeier
Running Time: 123
Picture Format: 16:9
Sound Format: PCM Stereo
Number of Discs: 1
Subtitle Languages: GB, DE, FR
R E V I E W S:
DEATH IN VENICE
John Neumeier, choreographer; Lloyd Riggins (
); Edvin Revazov (
); Laura Cazzaniga; Ivan Urban; Hélène Bouchet; Arsen Megrabian; Ji?í Bubení?ek; Konstantin Tselikov; Hamburg Ballet
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101 622 (DVD: 123: 00)
John Neumeier is an American-born dancer and choreographer who has been artistic director of the Hamburg Ballet since 1973. Thanks to DVDs, his work is becoming better known internationally, and this is the third Neumeier ballet I have had the pleasure of experiencing and reviewing. This production was recorded at the Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden in 2004, although I am not sure that an audience was present. (Some of the editing suggests not, but it really doesn’t matter.)
Thomas Mann’s novella previously has inspired a film by Luchino Visconti and an opera by Benjamin Britten. Neumeier’s ballet is at least as successful as these, although it too has its flaws. Neumeier naturally turns Aschenbach into a successful choreographer. In the long opening scene (too long, really) he is trying to create his new masterwork, a ballet based on Frederick the Great. He experiences a professional and personal crisis, and has a vision of his younger self in the company of his mother. A wayfarer (or rather, in this production, a pair of wayfarers) lures him to Venice. Upon his arrival, he is soon bored or repulsed by the other guests in the Hôtel des Bains, particularly after a flamboyant gay couple tries to seduce him. When he sees Tadzio, the beautiful and innocent young son of a visiting Polish family, however, he decides to stay. He becomes fixated on Tadzio, whom he observes on the beach playing with his friends. He has a terrifying bacchanalian nightmare. Plague grips Venice, and death is everywhere. Nevertheless, Aschenbach resolves to remain, and the last scene of the ballet is a
pas de deux
for Aschenbach and Tadzio, which Neumeier calls a “Liebestod.” At this point, Tadzio has become more abstract than corporeal, and Aschenbach’s collapse by Tadzio’s side at the very end also should be seen as something more than just his literal, physical death.
Most of the music Neumeier has chosen is by Bach (
The Musical Offering
) or Wagner (
Tristan und Isolde, Tannhäuser
, his piano music). Roughly speaking, Bach’s music represents the rational world, and Wagner’s the irrational. It is played either in its original scoring, or in versions for piano; at one point, we even see the pianist. (At other times, I assume it is a recorded score, and we are not told who the performers are.) The music is appropriate, and Neumeier uses it well, resisting the temptation to make his ballet seem … well, too operatic.
The basis of Neumeier’s style is classical ballet, but it is more athletic, more overtly dramatic, and very conscious of the expressive potential found in modern dance. In this production in particular, we are aware that the dancers also are actors. This is particularly true for the dancers interpreting Aschenbach and Tadzio. I don’t know what their speaking voices are like, but both could have had a strong career in silent movies, so expressive are their faces and body language. (Never mind that Lloyd Riggins probably is too young to be an Aschenbach, and Edvin Revazov, apple-cheeked as he may be, probably is too old to be a Tadzio.)
The pluses here are superb choreography, staging, and light design (all by Neumeier), impressive dancing by an appealing cast, and an intriguing new look at Mann’s novella. (Sometimes, the less one says, the better, which makes ballet among the best of all.) I do feel, though, that
Death in Venice
would have been better if it had been about 30 minutes shorter—the exposition, in particular, does go on. The ballet might have been more focused if Neumeier had not attempted to show us so much of Aschenbach the choreographer, although it is obvious why this appealed to Neumeier. What does it matter if Aschenbach is a choreographer, or a writer, or a composer, and why is it important for this to be shown?
There is a 59-minute bonus in the form of a documentary by Norbert Beilharz. I have gotten into the habit of watching these first, because they often explain what I am about to see. In this case, though, it doesn’t add much to what Neumeier has written in his booklet note. Unless you are a fan of rehearsal footage, or seeing Neumeier talk about his ballet on a rather cheesy studio “beach,” I think you can skip the bonus.
Production values are excellent; this is a DVD that looks and sounds very good. I know many people are irritated by dance CDs in which you can’t always see the dancers’ feet, and this is one of those. It is, however, justified by Neumeier’s style, which is about so much more than footwork and stage pictures.
Time constraints prevent me from living with this ballet for a while before writing my review. Still, I am comfortable in saying that Neumeier’s
Death in Venice
is a work of high sensitivity, creativity, and technical accomplishment, and it can only get better the more one sees it.
FANFARE: Raymond Tuttle
A modern myth, as it were, Thomas Mann’s novella
Death in Venice (
Der Tod in Venedig, 1912)
takes its inspiration from art. It also continues to stimulate adaptations in which the themes of the story to resonate in various ways. In addition to the references to classical myth, Mann himself acknowledged the physical description of his hero Gustav Aschenbach resembled the face of Gustav Mahler. This served to connect his story to a contemporary musician, albeit without biographical overtones. The story acquired new life as a film by Visconti (1971) and as an opera by Britten (1973). In transforming the story into ballet, choreographer John Neumeier uses movement for its execution. The result is a work which stands well on its own. It re-envisions the story and offers interpretations of the music Neumeier used in this new context.
As with his other ballets, notably the ones based on the music of Mahler, Neumeier chose significant works for the score. In
Death in Venice Neumeier makes use of music by Bach and Wagner: Bach’s
Musical Offering, BWV 1079; the Bourrée from Bach’s Suite for Lute, BWV 996; various excerpts from Wagner’s
Tristan und Isolde, including the famous prelude to Act 1 and the third-act
Liebestod; the “Bacchanale” from
Tannhaüser) extracts from the
Wesendonck-Lieder; and Webern’s orchestration of the six-voiced ricercar from Bach’s
Musical Offering. The choices underscore the two aesthetic poles of Mann’s story. As Neumeier stated in the notes published with the DVD, “When I decided to translate the novella into dance, I knew from the beginning that I would use the music of Johann Sebastian Bach for the rational, intellectual, Apollonian world of strict order that characterizes Aschenbach’s creations. ...” For the contrasting Dionysian world, the logical choice was Wagner. Neumeier’s selections from nineteenth-century operas are appropriate to this version of
Death in Venice.
Neumeier’s scenario hinges on the depiction of Gustav Aschenbach as an esteemed choreographer. He is neither the writer Mann described in his story (and in Britten’s libretto) nor the composer in Visconti’s film. The action is shifted to the eighteenth-century court of Frederick the Great. In the course of completing a ballet for the Prussian court, Aschenbach encourages a mysterious stranger, whose arrival prompts the choreographer to leave Germany. Aschenbach finds himself in Venice, where he encounters the Polish youth Tadzio and becomes infatuated with the boy. This inspires Dionysian dreams in Aschenbach’s psyche. As he wakes to real life in Venice, a cholera epidemic strikes the city. Instead of fleeing, Aschenbach stays. His unfinished ballet entitled “Frederick the Great” is his legacy after dying in Venice. This follows the outlines of Mann’s story, including the unfinished Frederick the Great. The history of the monarch in Mann’s novella becomes a ballet in Neumeier’s adaptation, a detail which suggests autobiographical elements.
Neumeier’s use of the famous novella as a point of departure sets the bar high for creating dance that translates the story effectively. Neumeier succeeds in meeting the challenge with his medium becoming an apt vehicle for retelling Mann’s story. In this regard the element of abstraction works well within the structure, so that it is possible to enter into the concept of communicating the narrative through dance. Thus, the choreography in the opening scene projects the textures and motion found in a fugue by Bach. This in turn suggests the kinds of abstract dances associated with the fictional protagonist (here portrayed convincingly by Lloyd Riggins). Neumeier’s own facility at choreography is evident in the contrastingly passionate dances that underscore Aschenbach’s fascination with Tadzio. He is, after all, responding to the music. The selection of pieces is another masterstroke which serves as the means to connect dance and narrative. The musical element stands apart from the way Visconti used the
Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony throughout the film
Death in Venice. In the latter the recurrence of the same music in various contexts differs from the ways in which Neumeier juxtaposed different kinds of works in his ballet. Wisely he avoids the inclusion of any Mahler; no suggestion of any intertextual element between this new ballet and Visconti’s film. While Neumeier uses a number of pieces, the choreography allows them to cohere and this video usefully shows how this works. With stage direction as nimble as would occur with a play, the sense of timing found in this performance merits attention for the way it allows the entire structure to flow with easy eloquence.
As ballet, this conception of the story works well on various levels. The evocation of the eighteenth century milieu is readily found in the music. The use of selected props prevents the ballet from becoming a costume drama; the use of tricorn hats and period jackets is sufficient in this regard. Likewise, the mirroring that is part of the choreography throughout the ballet sets up the climactic scene between Aschenbach and Tadzio. This aspect of dance further connects the treatment of fugue in the first part of the ballet with the intimate scene at the end. At the same time, the element of music stands out in the treatment of the music and the visual reminders of scores. The use of Peters editions of Bach’s music as a prop not only presents the name of the composer unquestionably on the stage, but also suggest the kind of reverence for the score that parallels the way the book of scripture functions in a liturgical setting.
A modern work of art, Neumeier’s ballet merits attention for its convincing translation of Thomas Mann’s
Death in Venice in dance. With a cast and production shaped by Neumeier, the video offers an authentic rendering of the 2004 ballet for future audiences to appreciate. It is moving for the way the story becomes vivid without a single word of dialogue. Neumeier’s
Death in Venice demonstrates the choreographer’s mastery of the genre.
-- James L. Zychowicz, MusicWeb International
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