Opera North Pays Tribute to Britten with Death in Venice

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Death in Venice:  Soloists, Dancers, Actors, Orchestra of Opera North, Richard Farnes (conductor), Grand Theatre, Leeds, 19.10.2013 (JL)

Gustav von Aschenbach:  Alan Oke
Traveller/Elderly Fop/Old Gondolier/Hotel Manager/Hotel Barber/Leader of the Players/Voice of Dionysus:  Peter Savidge
Voice of Apollo: Christopher Ainslie
Original Director: Yoshi Oida
Revival Director:  Rob Kearley
Set Designer: Tom Schenk
Costume Designer: Richard Hudson
Original Lighting Designer: Paul Constable
Revival Lighting Designer: Tony Simpson
Choreographer: Daniela Kurz

Although billed as a “new” production on the Opera North website, this is a revival of an admired international collaboration that was unveiled at Snape, the Britten holy of holies, six years ago and conducted by former Opera North music director Paul Daniel. The current production, new to Leeds, is presented  by the Company  as part of its “Festival of Britten” in the composer’s centenary year. On the night I attended (two days after the premiere) the BBC broadcast the performance live on Radio 3.

The original concept was that of the distinguished Japanese Yoshi Oida who, as an actor, worked for many years with the great, radical director Peter Brook. The staging is of an unchanging simple back drop that eschews any literal representation of Venice – in contrast to the sets created for Benjamin Britten by the painter John Piper in 1973. There is, however, an imaginative nod to the canals, with real water on the floor of the stage bridged by paths of decking. Unfortunately, most people in the stalls of the Leeds Grand Theatre could not see this – a hazard of the travelling production.  The design, with its Japanese-style simplicity and symmetry contrasts well with the dancing and movement of crowd scenes.

When Britten put the  idea of an opera based on Thomas Mann’s novella to his librettist Myfanwy Piper (wife of John) she said it would be too “difficult” to do.  She changed her mind and between them they created an opera that takes place largely inside a man’s head.  It starts straight in at the deep end with Aschenbach’s plaintive cry, “My mind beats on but no words come”,  accompanied by stabbing notes on flute and piccolo that sound like the beepings of a hospital heart monitor.

Alan Oke, who has already sung Peter Grimes this year, charted Aschenbach’s tortuous way  from that beginning via happy optimisms, depressions, yearnings and regrets through to his ignoble demise with consummate sensitivity. This was not an overly demonstrative performance but one of considerable subtlety. He coped easily with all the vocal demands of the tenor role including the high notes – surprising for a man who started life as a baritone.

Peter Savidge  played the seven characters  that  provide Achenbach’s foils. Not only did he sing well but transformed himself from one to the other in a manner worthy of the great character actor, Alec Guinness.

The actors, dancers and singers, a complement of nearly fifty, were directed with eye-pleasing imagination, providing movement and mime in a work that is otherwise static.

Much of Britten’s orchestral score is sparse and haunting but is offset by the contrasting sound of tuned percussion, a reference to Britten’s fascination with Balinese gamelan sound, the latter representing a lighter side, often involving the optimism of youth in scenes with children.

The Orchestra of Opera North, conducted by its music director Richard Farnes, has never been other than outstanding in a string of recent productions and this was no exception. Complex rhythms were executed with clarity, atmosphere was evoked and  the dynamic contrasts were spectacular.

Surtitles were available on either side of the stage but were only provided for the chorus and bit parts.  It carried an assumption that what the two main characters were singing could easily be heard.  This was false. I would guess that, overall, I was struggling to catch more than 50% and I heard interval mutterings to that effect. I do not think the singers’ diction was to blame. In an extremely verbal opera that includes esoteric discussions on beauty that invoke Dionysus, Apollo and Socrates, it is important to hear what is going on.

Neverthless, this is a distinguished production that I urge Britten fans not to miss. It will shortly hit the road with a return to the place from whence it came – Snape near Britten’s home of Aldeburgh – followed by visits to Salford, Newcastle and Nottingham.

John Leeman