David McVicar’s Triumphant ‘Death in Venice’ at The Royal Opera.
Director David McVicar’s take on Britten’s Death in Venice has just opened at the Royal Opera House; it’s the first of two Britten operas performed in the 2019/20 Season as part of The Royal Opera’s ongoing Britten cycle. The story follows widowed writer Gustav von Aschenbach’s descent from a disciplined asceticism into fevered eroticism, overcome both by his unrequited desire for a young Polish teenage boy staying at the same hotel in the Venice Lido and by the sweet and sultry decay of the city itself. You may be familiar with Death in Venice from the original Thomas Mann novella or have seen the 1971 film Luchino Visconti directed film starring Dirk Bogarde. The opera sticks with Mann’s depiction of Gustav von Aschenbach as a writer and not a composer as in the film, with Britten’s lean, cerebral atonality bringing to life von Aschenbach’s interior world with austere piano accompaniment contrasting with the lush strings that characterise the corruption of the city. British tenor Mark Padmore commands the stage in a central performance as Aschenbach that is not only beautifully sung and articulated, bringing to life the character’s journey through a nuanced variation in tone, but also a tour-de-force in operatic acting. His despair at the start of Act 2 is palpable as he comes to the realisation that he is powerless to resist the force of his obsessive love for Tadzio, played in a non-speaking role by the classically athletic Leo Dixon from the Royal Ballet. Lynne Page’s stylised choreography presents Tadzio as an Apollonian boy-god wrestling, running and throwing the discus, but also literally sexually entangled with von Aschenbach in the writer’s cholera-induced fantasy. In a production framed by shadows and light, Venice itself is one of the stars with Vicki Mortimer’s set, including an authentic Venetian gondola, creating a series of elegant CinemaScope style vistas of the hotel, beach and the piazzas and colonnades of the city in which the action unfolds. The ROH orchestra under the Richard Farnes gives a more measured take on the score than in Steuart Bedford’s classic 1974 recording allowing the psychopathology of the lead character to emerge. There is terrific cast of supporting characters and special mention must go to Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley, who plays seven characters all of whom confront von Aschenbach in some way. Particularly memorable was his oleaginous hotel barber turning the writer into a perfumed and rouged travesty of his former self. British countertenor Tim Mead’s Voice of Apollo, provided a superb sonic foil to the rest of the cast, soaring above the orchestra with exquisite clarity.
Composed in 1973, Death in Venice was Britten’s last opera, written when his health beginning to fail. There are clear parallels between Britten and the von Aschenbach character with the composer having had a series of intense friendships with young boys. Following the novel, librettist Myfanwy Piper places this adoration of von Aschenbach as the elder man for the beauty of the younger in a non-sexual Socratic context but as the author’s self-control wanes he succumbs to the influence of Eros allowing the erotic to overcome his self-restraint. The production partially sidesteps the problematic issue of the youth of Tadzio, who in the book and film is portrayed as being 14 years old, by the casting of Leo Dixon who is clearly in his early twenties. But despite the problematic areas of the story, this is an extremely fine production of a psychological masterpiece with an intelligent central performance that demands to be seen.
Death in Venice opens on 21 November 2019, with subsequent performances on 26 and 30 November and 3 and 6 December 2019.
The Royal Opera House’s Britten cycle continues with The Turn of the Screw in the Linbury Theatre in June 2020.
Death in Venice
Royal Opera House
Also currently showing at the Royal Opera House is The Magic Flute
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