In Britten centenary year, when better to encounter his Death in Venice for the first time? Especially in so graceful and poignant a production as that provided by Deborah Warner for English National Opera.
There was atmospheric assistance on hand, after a run of particularly humid (and drably grey) days in London we had just a small insight into the stuffy, oppressive air that pervades the work. This saw the rudimentary Coliseum air-conditioning turned well up, so that most of us in the Balcony were assailed by sudden and severe gusts of cool air. At times this nicely mirrored the billowing curtains of the hotel scenes that separated the lobby from the balcony overlooking the ominous lagoon. The light shifted and changed over the lagoon, and the cityscape of Venice shifted elegantly into and out of focus as the scenes moved between the Lido and the city. Walls and curtains moved silently to change the locations, leaving most of the downstage area empty. If there was one minor carp, it would be the near-impossibility of creating claustrophobia on the Coliseum’s yawning stage, but this production did come as near as any to achieving it.
I won’t grow to love the score, I don’t think. Britten always divides me. The hefty dramatic side never fails to grip me (the Peter Grimes end of his output, if you will), always seeming more chromatic and engaging. As ever, when the chorus gather around the principal character, their music works a haunting, isolating magic. Elsewhere, the more spare, percussive style he adopts (perhaps the Midsummer Night’s Dream end of the oeuvre?), I’m afraid I find trying over long passages, and it seems to highlight the off-putting archness and abstract intellectualism in the libretto, which (by Myfanwy Piper) contained some moments of beautiful lyricism, but longer passages that disengaged me. So the beginning of Death in Venice irritated and bored me by turns, but towards the end of the first half, and through most of the second, there was a building tension and a deepening sadness that made von Aschenbach’s closing scenes almost terrifyingly lonely. I couldn’t shake a slight sense of the piece coming to a close about three times before it finally did, starting up again each time; but nevertheless, the spare staging and the tremendously affecting acting of John Graham-Hall as von Aschenbach carried the day.
On stage practically throughout, Graham-Hall sang with wonderful clarity, veering between baritonal strength in his public outbursts and a meltingly plangent tone in his interior reflections. He convincingly described the journey of von Aschenbach, from surprise at his captivation by Tadzio’s beauty, through to increasing desperation at his vacillations in the face of public disapprobation, disease and, underpinning it all, a personal creative crisis as an established, ‘respected’ writer.
As the seven main characters across the various scenes, Andrew Shore contributed vivid characterisations and a wide vocal dynamic to bring the different roles to life. Along with the off-stage choruses, he suffered more than Graham-Hall for his words being lost to us in the Balcony, probably because of the speed of patter in some of the passages and the sheer challenge of giving characterful voice, occasionally requiring a dab of falsetto, whilst getting the words clearly across. The absence of surtitles, a decision that may well meet with the approval of the critics who get to sit in the Stalls, was a disappointment for our high-up little group, and numerous details were lost to us. Tim Mead contributed a crisp countertenor (well, there had to be one, didn’t there?) as Voice of Apollo. An array of minor roles, actors and dancers were all well taken.
At the head of the dance troupe, the impressively athletic Sam Zaldivar nicely captured the youth’s natural transitions between playful showiness and haughty distance. His family moved through their roles with great poise and a powerful musical connection. The jostling, game-playing cast of lads populated their scenes with a fresh energy that made all the more poignant the lack of it elsewhere in the later scenes, even if their danced games and play-fights became a little bit West Side Story at times.
Edward Gardner managed the shifting sound-worlds beautifully, the climaxes being all the more temperature-raising for their dynamic contrast with the cooler, percussive passages of reflection. The ENO orchestra, most of whom had fearsomely exposed music to perform, played faultlessly and with great expressive clarity.
A complex work, and not an easy night at the theatre, for sure. Beyond a more intimate theatre – oh! to be able to get the extended cast and orchestra into Wilton’s Music Hall, for example! – I can’t imagine a production that more clearly traces the extended sense of bleakness, malaise and decay that infects Death in Venice. Next week, on to Gloriana…