United Kingdom Benjamin Britten, Death in Venice (1973): Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North / Richard Farnes (conductor), The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays, Salford, 7.11.2013
(With limited surtitles)
Gustav von Aschenbach: Alan Oke, (tenor).
Traveller, Barber, Hotel manager, etc: Peter Savidge, (baritone).
Voice of Apollo: James Liang (countertenor.)
Actors and Dancers.
Director: Yoshi Oida, revised by Rob Kearley.
Set Designer: Thomas Schenk.
Costume Designer: Richard Hudson.
Lighting Design: Paul Constable.
Revival Choreographer: Katharina Bader.
Original production shared between Aldeburgh Festival, Bregenz Festival, Opera Praha and Opera Lyon.
Look not for sights of Palaces or the Grand Canal, nor for a view of the lagoon in a projection on the large mirror angled on the back wall. Yes a boat passes by in one such picture. Is it a vaporetti or just a boat on the Mersey or Thames? It matters not. Venice is created in the mind by the simulated balletic gondoliers propelling their crafts in the distinctive manner of that city, plank walkways and pools of water and sand for Aschenbach to kick. Otherwise this much-travelled production, revived by Rob Kearley, needs careful observation. Anything of serrisimo, like Aschenbach’s hotel, is creature of the observers mind.
Among the many allusions, including Peter Savidge sitting at the side of the stage and appearing in many guises, one that did confuse me was the door through which the boy passes, but not Aschenbach. By then, however, I had a number of confusions, not being intimate with this, Britten’s final operatic endeavour, in my sixty years of opera going. Despite the well constrained orchestral textures under Richard Farnes’ baton, and Alan Oke’s well-projected and characterised Aschenbach, the lack of titles, except for the chorus interludes, was a distinct disadvantage in following the nuances of the unfolding story and the frequent diversions that the librettist made from Thomas Mann’s novella on which the opera is based.
The opera is somewhat like a long declamatory secco recitative, with the delicate filigree-like orchestral background its own master. How Alan Oke managed to learn the vast amount of text and relate it to this seemingly simple backing is to be admired. His tenor has many more colours than that of the role’s creator, Peter Pears, Britten’s partner in music and life. Oke’s acting, whether of Aschenbach’s somewhat arrogant early behaviour, his medical neurosis at the threat of cholera, or his ultimate degeneration with the disease is marvellous to watch. He fully deserved his applause at the conclusion and curtain.
The dancers were likewise appealing in their physical gymnastics. I am unsure of having one of their number manifest as Tadzio. Much is written about the homoerotic nature of the score. Is that really there or is it a consequence of perceptions of Britten’s sexuality?
Over recent years Opera North has done Britten’s operas proud in productions and number of performances. With only one performance of Death in Venice in this Festival of Britten tour, many inquisitive opera goers, as well as Britten aficionados, made the effort to provide good numbers in the audience. Well done all round.
Robert J Farr