Notes and Editorial Reviews
Madwoman, psychotic fisherman, the ghost of a child abuser, and Shakespearian drag queen. These bespoke roles, and the rest, suggest that Peter Pears’s significant other could mobilize an interesting sense of humor to go with the love and admiration. Maybe Pears took comfort in the prospect of becoming an onstage Aschenbach. In the event, friends suggested the huge scale of the lead singing part in Death in Venice might kill him. The response of the significant other was hardly comforting: Britten suggested that if the opera killed his partner, there could hardly be a better way to go! Philip Langridge, heroically accurate, holds a steadier line than Pears throughout the score, and his vocal death on the beach is moving, beautifully sung,
and pathetic at the same time. Before then, the whole Chandos team has given us one hell of a gondola trip for two-and-a-half hours. Better than any video production, this set steers the mind’s eye through Britten’s bewildering, dreamlike maze of modernist canals, gamelan bridges, and philosophical claustrophobia.
Maybe Richard Hickox is getting bored with praise, but here’s some more. This is another major achievement for him, taped last year in Blackheath Concert Halls. Sound is spectacular and real, with well-considered, subtle dramatic production. Nothing is overstated by anyone, but the dynamic grading is a marvel. The score was Britten’s most extended instrumental masterpiece since The Prince of the Pagodas, and Hickox relates the oppressive atmosphere to Busoni’s Faust (strongly), as well as to Berg, Mahler, and West-Coasters like Lou Harrison. The opera, qua opera, is problematic, given the simple story and persistent memories of the Visconti movie, about which the composer seemed rather snobbish. For music theater, op. 88 amounts to a serious stab at the implications of the Mann novella, crafted by Britten and Myfanwy Piper to offer constant commentary on itself as it proceeds, in the truest tradition of early 20th-century modernist discourse. The seriousness of the achievement is a triumph, but it can seem rather glum and slow, while the distanced and detached chorus underlines the point in grey. Tricky business, composing dreariness, decay, death, and dubious impulse. Britten pulled it off, and goodness me, this is an adult piece of work.
Grown-up miracles from Alan Opie in his many roles, reeling Langridge in, and from Michael Chance, as the score becomes kind of unearthly, without relief. Sharp playing all round. Bedford’s set on Decca is sharp, too. It forms a vital part of the history of a work that can seem to lack any sort of sympathetic character. Yet, banal as this might seem, the closer I get to my own death, the more this music means. It grows deeper as I get older and less sure. The links seem clear, now, to mainstream Italian opera and to Stravinsky (Pétroushka, even, in scene 10), who was buried in Venice as Britten was contemplating his own last big theatrical shout. It’s with this new Hickox set of Death in Venice that your humble critic would choose to float away.
Paul Ingram, FANFARE
Works on This Recording
Death in Venice, Op. 88 by Benjamin Britten
Philip Langridge (Tenor),
Alan Opie (Baritone),
Michael Chance (Countertenor)
City of London Sinfonia,
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1973; England
Venue: Blackheath Halls, London, England
Length: 151 Minutes 29 Secs.
Notes: Blackheath Halls, London, England (07/21/2004 - 07/24/2004)
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