JWR Articles: Live Event - Death in Venice (Director: Yoshi Oida) - October 24, 2010

Death in Venice

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Artist heal thyself

Benjamin Britten’s transformation of Thomas Mann’s novella, which delves into the inspirational pursuit of beauty and form (fuelled by largely self-serving rationalizations of many convenient truths) captures the essence of the words with a complex, magnificently orchestrated score that, in turn, moves deftly to the core thanks to Myfanwy Piper’s concise libretto.

For this well-travelled production (The Aldeburgh Festival, Bregenz Festival, Státní opera Praha and Opéra de Lyon) director Yoshi Oida has opted to let the music take prominence, washing the eye with wave after wave of black-and-white images and a few shades of gray. What little colour there is (the bookend funeral wreaths, the players’ gaudy garb, new or tellingly musty strawberries, earth tones and water—projected, draped or worn) only heightens the stark mood and dark tone. His overall vision has been deftly realised by Tom Schenk’s sparse, functional sets and Richard Hudson’s period-perfect costumes.

Still, three decisions seem unwise. Decking out Tadzio (Adam Sergison cut an appropriately lithe figure, moving effortlessly through Daniela Kurz’s original choreography (freshly revived by Katharina Bader), yet unable—perhaps unasked—to put much heat into his searing looks at the smitten, mute suitor) in black bathing gear was too harsh of a sartorial sentence (and, given the burning summer sun at the Lido’s beach, belied the climate). The makeover of master-writer Gustav von Aschenbach (Alan Oke) from pale and sickly to alluring and years-younger by the affable barber (one of the many roles Peter Savidge tossed off with aplomb, if not quite foppish enough on the sea voyage to gaily enchant) slipped into unwanted parody with the application of two bright rouge cheeks. Having just been judged and ridiculed (with daggers drawn in the form of society’s pointed fingers following the comic play within the unfolding tragedy), the circus paint rang as false as the “official” Venetian line to the outside world that there was no plague felling citizens and visitors alike. Finally, having copious amounts of real water on stage added much to the look of Venetian beaches and canals, but the few instances of splashing feet only caused the ear to wonder why the frequent gondola rides were silent.

How unfortunately visionary—from both Mann and Britten—that the HIV/AIDS “plague” should fit their storyline as closely as the taut apparel of buff men everywhere who, just a few years after the opera’s 1973 première, would begin vanishing from the planet in an equally ignorant, widespread tide of denial.

Oke gave a magnificent performance notable for its superb falsetto forays (“spring” and “wind” just two examples of unforgettable control and purity) and fully formed legato lines that intertwined magically with the music whether solo piano or full-cry ensemble. The extended chromatic descent in the second act held the crowd’s attention with an intensity that truly spoke of shared experience.

Conductor Steuart Bedford was with the talented cast every bar of the way and utilized his instinctive sense of pulse to provide the dancers a solid musical platform from which to move through their athletic paces. Just a few moments of untidy ensemble from the chorus (the perennially ragged “Citizens be advised”) gave any cause for concern.

The frequent Greek references (curiously the wrestling match was mounted as a group rather than one-on-one) were literally illuminating (the deft use of torches had a decidedly Olympic aura) and musically brilliant: William Towers’ Apollo was a vocal tour de force.

The early-on image of the Grim Reaper as gondolier taking the troubled writer to his pre-determined destination of early ecstasy and ultimate doom was a magnificent metaphor for unchecked viral catastrophe—currently taking deadly stage in Haiti. JWR

Historical Perspective

Paul Zeplichal

Death in Venice
BBC Television
Glyndebourne Touring Opera
Robin Lough, Director
Kultur, 1990, 138 min.
Five stars

Britten’s opera has so many introspective, intimate moments that—in the right hands as here with Lough’s mastery of shots and deeply-moving sensitivity to the subject matter—viewing the work through yet another, closer lens brings the viewer nearly back to the singular relationship between author and reader that Mann’s novella so ideally achieves.

Robert Tear is riveting as Aschenbach, living the role with passion and artistry in his descent into self-understanding, wrought with humiliation, pain and desperate longing. Musically and dramatically it’s difficult to imagine anyone better than, perhaps, Peter Pears himself. For the multiple baritone roles, it’s also difficult to imagine a more engaging (Elderly Fop with an Elton John look and wily demeanour), entertaining (Hotel Barber who adores applying makeup to elderly gentlemen in search of young love) or understanding (Hotel Manager—the announcement that “you will soon be departing” speaks marvellously to the real truth) than Peter Savidge. Outstanding doesn’t begin to describe his contribution.

Stage directors Stephen Lawless and Martha Clarke have provided Lough with a broad expanse of movement (the closing fight where beauty finally loses is incredibly powerful as the mallet-accompanied youth tear away at each other with telling realism), contrast (the decision to employ “lit” gondola poles works especially well; decking out the male sea voyagers in Pierre et Giles garb is delightfully subliminal) and pace.

Lough more than returns the favour as he captures every nuance with style and variety (the sole overhead view of Aschenbach writhing on the floor after his dream of the Gods is unforgettable—as if Apollo and Dionysus are looking down on the shaking mortal still) that makes this production—on screen or onstage—the benchmark against which all others will be judged.

The London Sinfonietta provides solid or tender support as required. Conductor Graeme Jenkins (similar to Bedford) is an able accompanist but can’t find the right gesture to keep the Glyndebourne Chorus completely on track.

All of that said, the curly locks, limber physique and personal glances that are infused with beguiling subtext combine to make Paul Zeplichal’s (pictured above) depiction of Tadzio a work of beauty and form all on its own. JWR

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