Fine Production of Death in Venice by Gardner and ENO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Death in Venice: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the English National Opera / Edward Gardner (conductor). Coliseum, London, 14.6.2013 (MB)

Gustav von Aschenbach: John Graham-Hall
Traveller, Elderly fop, Old gondolier, Hotel manager, et al: Andrew Shore
Voice of Apollo: Tim Mead
Polish Mother: Lauda Caldow
Tadzio: Sam Zaldivar
Tadzio’s sisters: Mia Anglian Mather, Zhuliana Shehu
Governess: Joyce Henderson
Jaschiu: Marcio Teixeira
Hotel porter: Peter van Hulle
Strawberry-seller, Strolling player: Anna Dennis
Strolling player: Adrian Dwyer
Guide: Charles Johnston

Deborah Warner (director)
Tom Pye (set designs)
Chloe Obolensky (costumes)
Jean Kalman (lighting)
Kim Brandstrup (choreography)
Finn Ross (video)
Paul Brough (chorus master)

ENO is on fine form at the moment. Its recent Wozzeck deservedly received well-nigh universal acclaim. If Death in Venice did not have anything like the same dramatic impact, then that is more to be ascribed to the work than to the performances, which were generally excellent. In certain quarters, it is heresy to question Britten’s standing; for those with a greater sense of discrimination, it is patently obvious that his output is highly variable. The overrating of Peter Grimes offers an especially extreme example: it is a great story, with some memorable music, interspersed with some that is really rather dull. The Turn of the Screw stands head and shoulders above the rest of Britten’s operas, not least since it suffers less from the formal problems that so often beset his work. ENO, however, has served Britten very well, Christopher Alden’s riveting production, for instance, having elevated the slight, often tedious Midsummer Night’s Dream far above the intrinsic qualities of the work. Death in Venice is a better work than that, but it is not without tedium; an idea, at least as converted into this opera, which might have been better suited to a short one-act work, is drawn out far too long, seeming to take about as long as it would to read Thomas Mann’s novella. And if Britten’s display of his workings helps impart unity, that display, whether in terms of sonorities – the all too ready resort to gamelan echoes – or twelve-note process often sounds too obvious. It is difficult not to conclude that the opera would have benefited from wholesale revision, perhaps from a good editor.

Edward Gardner necessarily conducted the score as if he believed in every note of it; there is every reason to think that he did. If there were a few occasions when greater tightness might have been achieved, that is a minor criticism of a performance as dramatic as orchestral writing that is sometimes more thin than spare would permit. The ENO Orchestra was an estimable collaborator without, fully playing as if this were a repertory work inside the composer’s idiom. If the percussionists inevitably deserve special mention, that is no reflection upon the standard of performance elsewhere in the pit, from which sinewy woodwind lines and dark brass punctuation emerged with equal conviction.

John Graham-Hall’s voice is not especially beautiful; nor does it need to be. Whatever claims one might make for Peter Pears’s artistry, that would be an eccentric place to start, and Gustav von Aschenbach is a Pears role par excellence. Graham-Hall offered something far more telling: elusive yet unmistakeable dramatic truth. One felt that this was Aschenbach’s story; one both saw it through his eyes and saw him through the eyes of the story, if that makes any sense. It is a strenuous role indeed, but Graham-Hall used its very difficulty to great effect. Beauty, after all, is to be espied from afar, as it was here, not only in the guise of Sam Zaldivar’s gracefully nonchalant assumption of Tadzio, not only even in the æsthetic contemplation and temptation of the Games of Apollo, but in the society as a whole of which Aschenbach both is and is not a part. Tim Mead’s beautifully sung – and acted – Apollo seemingly tilted the dramatic scales further, though of course it would be the Voice of Dionysus that would eventually, tragically capture him. (That tragedy is perhaps one of the weaker aspects of the opera, pushing it too far in the direction of melodrama; but again, that is not the performers’ fault.) Andrew Shore managed a serious of roles with equal facility, as convincing as the oleaginous Hotel Manager as the ludicrous Leader of the Players (his heightened absurdity perhaps a consequence of Aschenbach’s condition?) A plethora of small roles – is the cast not excessive, especially for an opera concentrating so heavily upon a single protagonist? – emerged with similar qualities of observance.

Deborah Warner’s production is perhaps the best I have seen from her. The action takes place when and where it ‘should’, but unlike, for instance her dull Eugene Onegin, it provides a frame for imaginative performance. The first, dark scene in Munich, Tom Pye’s excellent set weighed down by the writer’s words, gives way to a plausible journey to illusory, indeed deadly light. For Jean Kalman’s lighting – the initial view from the hotel a fine coup de théâtre – stands as central as Chloe Obolensky’s beautifully-designed period costumes to the often spellbinding success of the staging. Graham-Hall of course deserves the lion share of the credit for the dramatic truth of his descent, but Warner’s direction of him onstage, for instance in the tentativeness of his approaches to Tadzio, must also have played an important role. Kim Brandstrup’s choreography highlights the boys’ natural athleticism, highly successful in conveying its crucial non-reflective quality. Reflection, after all, is Aschenbach’s lot.

Mark Berry