Magazine article The Spectator

Greeting Death with Joy

Magazine article The Spectator

Greeting Death with Joy

Article excerpt

Death in Venice Coliseum

At last ENO has come up with a production which can be greeted almost without reservation, and of a treacherously tricky opera, Britten's last and for many his greatest, Death in Venice. After a gruelling two weeks in which I have seen major works manhandled beyond bearing at the Royal Opera and at Glyndebourne, I was almost shocked to see a production which couldn't be faulted in its concentration on realising the composer's vision with economy, imagination and concentration. When a work is as complex as this, the production team's first duty is lucidity, and that is exactly what Deborah Warner, with her set and lighting designers Tom Pye and Jean Kalman, has achieved. What a strange state we have come to that any regular opera-goer will be startled by unpretentious loyalty to a great creative work.

Right from the start, the atmosphere of one and another kind of oppressiveness is unerringly caught, though there are few props, most of the effects being wrought by lighting and the help of a few drapes.

Aschenbach's visit to Munich's North Cemetery, his encounter with the Traveller, first of seven manifestations of Charon, taking him across to the isle of the dead (Mann's novella is steeped in the imagery of Boecklin), is simply against a black backcloth -- Warner and her team trust the music, and rightly, since Britten perfectly conveys Aschenbach's nervy anxiety about his failing powers, with music that refuses to advance. Even Myfanwy Piper, whose text is so often inept, manages to find the mots justes here. It's almost a relief to see the loutish group of merrymakers, with the ghastly Elderly Fop, the second of the seven, cavorting round the funnel of the boat taking them to Venice -- a funnel that belches smoke and steam. Pye even catches the luxury of the Grand Hotel des Bains with a few large curtains, potted plants and servile waiters.

What I soon came to feel, and went on feeling, was that the music and the stage pictures were mutually reinforcing, and went on being so until the very end -- indeed progressed impressively, the last half-hour of the work having a veiled darkyellow sun staring us down, with the sirocco-like humidity of the Coliseum colluding enthusiastically -- while the element that the music almost completely fails to capture is Aschenbach's inner state. That is what I have come to expect with Britten, whose operatic oeuvre rarely gives us any insight into the central characters. His latter-day fascination with the gamelan was only an extension of his lifelong preoccupation with sound effects, especially onomatopoeic ones. What this comes to in Death in Venice is that Act I, which is long but has tremendous pace, because it crams in everything that happens until Achenbach's devastated -- and devastating -- realisation that he loves Tadzio, is full of evocative and fascinating music, while the somewhat briefer Act II, which attempts far more a study of what is going on within the harrowed, humiliated, passionately pursuing author, seems musically arid and sometimes embarrassingly at its wits' end about what to do next. …

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