Death in Venice

Benjamin Britten
The Royal Opera
Royal Opera House
to

I first saw Benjamin Britten’s final opera at Covent Garden in 1978, in a revival of the original Aldeburgh production five years after its première and two after the composer's death. At that time, Britten’s operatic output was on the fringes of the mainstream repertoire and for the following few decades the work was hardly seen on the UK stage. Fortunately, in the last few years, there’s been a flurry of excellent productions which are now joined by David McVicar’s new staging for the Royal Opera.

Britten’s lifelong partner and collaborator Peter Pears was vocally past his best by 1978 but he was still thrillingly intense in the role of the ageing artist Gustav von Aschenbach, who develops a passion for a young boy while sojourning in cholera-hit Venice. The moment the phrase “I love you” was wrenched from his depths at the end of the first act still rings in the ears.

What was clear at that first outing was that this is an opera of stunning beauty despite the potentially difficult subject matter, something that has become even more controversial in the intervening years. Now fully established as an opera composer of world importance, Britten, and this work in particular, are performed frequently, reaching an ever-wider audience. A sensible pricing policy at the Royal Opera House has helped make this a sell-out run for an opera that deserves its place among the finest of post-war works.

McVicar’s straightforward and unfussy staging holds no surprises, as some of his productions do. There’s a seemingly full-length gondola that almost fills the width of the stage and a series of austerely elegant images with nothing to upset the traditionalists. The scenes set in luxury hotels, the lido beach and Venetian back streets unfold with the utmost simplicity and style in Vicki Mortimer’s sets and Paule Constable’s atmospheric lighting.

Much is made of the gamelan sounds of Britten’s score, and rightly so, but another unusual component of the opera orchestra, the pianoforte, adds haunting and thrilling notes as accompaniment to Aschenbach’s internal musings. Since first hearing it, I still maintain this is one of his greatest scores, wrung out of the dying composer’s painful final months. Beneath the beauty is anguish and pain; he could hardly have picked a more fitting and demanding subject for his farewell to the world.

Tenor Mark Padmore is at his excellent best as a bewitched and bewildered Aschenbach and Gerald Finley—still highly memorable in the small role of the English Clerk at Glyndebourne early in his career—is magnificent in the multiple baritone roles who haunt Aschenbach throughout the work. Soprano Rebecca Evans is extra luxury casting in the tiny role of the Strawberry Seller and there are notable contributions from Colin Judson as the Hotel Porter and Dominic Sedgwick as the Clerk. At the performance I saw, counter-tenor Tim Mead was replaced by Randall Scotting as an embodied Apollo.

The difficulty of the subject matter—a mature man’s yearning for a beautiful boy—is mitigated by having a young man with no hint of adolescence in the role of Tadzio, beautifully danced by Leo Dixon to some exhilarating choreography by Lynne Page.

There have been some fine stagings of this opera in recent years, not least Deborah Warner’s at English National Opera in 2007 and 2013, and for anyone who has not had the pleasure of experiencing this exquisite work yet, this stands alongside them. Get a ticket if you can.

Reviewer: Simon Thomas