Whilst Garsington Opera’s annual festival on the Wormsley Estate has been a key date in the international opera calendar for several years, the opening night of their new production of Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice was especially significant due to boasting an orchestra led by Steuart Bedford, the conductor of the world première at Snape Maltings near Aldeburgh in Suffolk 43 years ago, just a few years before composer Britten’s death.
Based on the controversial and homoerotic novella by Thomas Mann published in 1912, Death in Venice remains one of the most popular works in German literature. Semi-autobiographical, it tells the story of Gustav von Aschenbach, an ageing writer who, on suffering from writer’s block, travels to perhaps the most hauntingly beautiful city on earth, Venice, where he becomes obsessed with a handsome and athletic adolescent.
It’s clear that Britten not only faithfully adapted Death in Venice but allowed his own sexuality to colour his interpretation and add an undeniable resonance. And although he was advised not to see Luchino Visconti’s 1971 film version starring Dirk Bogarde, which was in production at the same time as Britten was composing the opera, this production, directed by Paul Curran, draws on the ambiguities of the novel, the cinematic qualities of the film and the profundity Britten evokes throughout this largely under-praised work.
Designer Kevin Knight utilises period costumes, props, backdrops of both the lagoon and harbour, and a series of white gauze curtains to distinguish scene changes, allowing the audience to follow Aschenbach’s journey from his home city of Munich to Venice where he meets an array of characters including a corrupt Gondolier who insists on taking him to a different hotel on the Lido where he first sees Tadzio (Célestin Boutin), an exquisite Polish youth who is also residing there with his family for the season.
The acclaimed Paul Nilon plays Aschenbach for the first time and it is unimaginable that a tenor could be more suited to the role or more adept at leading a strong company of both singers and dancers, with baritone William Dazeley taking on seven characters including the Traveller, Elderly Fop and the Hotel Manager.
Having been immediately captivated by Tadzio, Aschenbach is too inhibited to strike up any conversation, and instead keeps a respectable distance whilst continuing to observe him at play with his two younger sisters or engaged in wrestling with other boys on the Lido including Jaschiu (Chris Agius Darmanin). The golden-haired Boutin’s exquisite lines allow us to fully understand the writer’s admiration of Tadzio’s majestic physical form.
Bedford meanwhile ensures the orchestra is in harmony with Aschenbach’s obvious loneliness, and the mellowness of clarinet, piano and harp create a wonderful sense of nostalgia. Lacking the big arias of other fêted European operas, and with so many of the central characters being non-vocal roles, including Tadzio and his mother (Nina Goldman) dance proves an extraordinarily powerful partner, and not only makes this Death in Venice a uniquely poignant and memorable experience, but a revelation in terms of illustrating the beauty which Aschenbach is so destructively drawn to.
Aschenbach’s attempts at making himself appear younger fail miserably, and a general feeling of decay pervades the second half, with Venice in the grip of a deadly cholera outbreak which the Italian authorities persist in denying. German visitors are urged to return home via newspaper reports, but still Aschenbach remains, so infatuated with Tadzio is he.
Spectacularly choreographed by Andreas Heise, every sequence conveys the innermost feelings of each character, whilst complimenting the libretto by Myfanwry Piper. It’s extraordinary that, whilst using entirely different mediums, Nilon and Boutin tell the story of Aschenbach and Tadzio’s encounter to perfection.
Death in Venice happened to be Britten’s last opera, written when he was suffering from an incurable heart condition, and perhaps this is why he proved the ideal composer to explore Mann’s timeless themes of mortality and lost beauty. Never did a production better illustrate Britten’s own words: ‘It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness of pain: of strength and freedom. The beauty of disappointment and never-satisfied love…’
Death in Venice until 10th July 2015 as part of Garsington Opera at the Wormsley Estate. For more information and tickets visit the website.