WNO’s bold and innovative Death in Venice explores its ambiguous depths (and heights)

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Death in Venice: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Leo Hussain (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 7.3.2024. (GPu)

Mark Le Brocq (von Aschenbach) and Anthony César (Tadzio) © Johann Persson

After a somewhat disappointing production of Cosi fan tutte (review here), Welsh National Opera’s short Spring season reached greater heights (both literally and metaphorically) with this remarkable interpretation of Benjamin Britten’s last and greatest opera. While highly imaginative it left space for (and required) its audience’s imagination. It was also emotionally effective and included some fine individual performances.

The most distinctive and exciting thing about this performance was that it was produced in collaboration with the Cardiff-based company NoFit State Circus and the stage was frequently peopled with acrobats, aerialists and rope walkers from the company. Their presence was far from being just a gimmick. Their presence and their spectacular activities extended that image of Carnivalesque Venice which is already there in the libretto, as in the Strolling Players in Act II. The rope walkers felt like an externalised image of von Aschenbach’s efforts to keep various elements of his mind and emotions in some sort of balance, to avoid a ‘fall’ as he tried to maintain his ‘balance’ while negotiating his way through his moral and aesthetic dilemmas, balancing his self-image with the pull of desire.

A few people I have spoken too felt that the circus elements were ultimately a distraction, but for the most part I found in them an articulation of theme and character. They were the most vivid emblem of the difference between Venice and the Munich von Aschenbach had left behind. This dimension of the production made it altogether clear that Tadzio (Anthony César) belonged in an entirely different world to that inhabited by von Aschenbach. The precarious nature of much that the aerialists did also had a metaphorical relationship to the deadly fever spreading across the city.

Musically there was much to admire and relish. Leo Hussain’s handling of the enhanced orchestra required in Death in Venice – with its tuned gongs and Chinese drums, a marimba and much else – was excellent and he complemented the singers perfectly, while doing full justice to the non-Western elements in the (gamelan-influenced) orchestral writing.

Mark LeBrocq’s interpretation of the role of Gustav von Aschenbach (much the largest in the opera) was commanding, while being shot through with the character’s self-doubt. He was thoroughly assured in the passages of recitative and Sprechstimme and psychologically convincing at all times – producing a vocally lucid and emotionally coherent account of von Aschenbach’s unrelenting self-awareness and its associated inhibitions; he presented von Aschenbach’s vanity and occasional pomposity with a degree of sympathy, creating a plausibly complex human being.

[l-r] Alexander Chance (Voice of Apollo), Mark Le Brocq (von Aschenbach), Roderick Williams (Dionysus) © Johann Persson

Roderick Williams mastered his seven roles – all of them in various ways ‘dark’ and troubling; they were sung and acted with exact and subtle discrimination; perhaps it is paradoxical to say so, but it was a measure of Williams’s success that one forgot that all these characters were sung by the same performer. Williams’s Dionysian characters (all in black) were counterpoised by Alexander Chance as the Voice of Apollo (a role his father, Michael Chance, sang before him), clad in a golden suit as a personification of the sun. Chance and Williams (as avatars of Apollo and Dionysus) fight a kind of psychomachia over the mind and soul of von Aschenbach, most explicitly during his dream in Act II, Scene 13 – a battle between Dionysian passion and disorder, and Apollonian harmony and rational control.

It might be argued that finding a way of reconciling the Apollonian and the Dionysian is what much of the world’s great art attempts. We are close here to the dramatic idiom of Britten’s Parables – one of the many ways in which Death in Venice, written when Britten, with serious heart problems, must inescapably have been aware of the approach of his own death, is a kind of summative retrospect of his own career as a composer. Indeed, Britten’s own artistic past is one of the driving forces in this remarkable work.

Death in Venice can seem too much like a philosophical discourse on aesthetics and ethics, on ideas about beauty and desire. It is all of that, but it is so much else as well – something more fully human, rich in emotion and excitement. For the ways in which it recognised all of this – its stunning use of the spectacular, its respectful, but not inhibited response to Myfanwy Piper’s excellent libretto and to the range of Britten’s music, and for its fluid stagecraft (in what can seem a rather fragmentary work) I was delighted by this production. In every respect, visual, intellectual, emotional and musical, it was just about everything a night in the opera house should be.

Glyn Pursglove

Production:
Director – Olivia Fuchs
Designer – Nicola Turner
Circus designer and director – Firenza Guidi
Chorus master – Frederick Brown

Cast included:
Gustav von Aschenbach ‒ Mark Le Brocq
The Traveller / Elderly Fop / Gondolier / Hotel Manager / Hotel Barber / Leader of the Players / Voice of Dionysus ‒ Roderick Williams
Voice of Apollo ‒ Alexander Chance
Tadzio ‒ Anthony César
Danish Lady – Carolyn Jackson
English Lady / Lace seller – Meriel Andrew
Newspaper seller – Angharad Morgan
Russian mother – Fiona Harrison-Wolfe
Nurse-governess – Helen Greenaway
Strawberry seller – Emily Christina Loftus
German mother – Stella Woodman
Strolling player – Claire Hampton
Glassmaker – Alun Rhys-Jenkins
Hotel porter – Peter Van Hulle
Strolling player – Rhodri Prys-Jones
A guide – Stephen Wells
English clerk – Gareth Brynmor John
Hotel waiter – Martin Lloyd
Russian father – Alastair Moore
Circus artist – Riccardo Saggese

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