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Review: Death in Venice

The revival of Britten's final opera delivers the goods...

The world of classical music and opera is celebrating the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten – arguably this country’s finest composer – with a year long festival, aptly entitled Britten 100.

Britten was gay, and it’s only fair to say that having died in 1976, aged 63, he was never a cheer-leader for the gay rights’ movement, although he made no secret of the fact that he lived with his life-long lover, the tenor Peter Pears, from the mid-40s when homosexuality was illegal in the UK.

Much, if not all of his operatic output contains underlying themes of queerness. Whether it’s the lone, misunderstood outsider Peter Grimes, the devilishly handsome Billy Budd, whose demise is quickened by the latent gay desires of his tormentor Claggart, or the middle-aged writer Aschenbach in ‘Death in Venice’ whose obsession with a beautiful Polish boy, Tadzio, blurs the lines between pedantry and the pursuit of beauty, Britten is continually questioning his sexuality and the motivation behind it.

‘Death in Venice’ was his last work for the stage and is an apt summation of his life’s work. The opera is based on the novella by the German author Thomas Mann which was made into a film by Luchino Visconti in 1971, starring Dirk Bogarde. It tells the story of an author, Gustav von Aschenbach, who travels to Venice for health reasons and becomes obsessed with an adolescent Polish boy called Tadzio. Although the two never converse, Aschenbach’s infatuation becomes all-consuming, as does the cholera which has enveloped the city which Aschenbach finally succumbs to at the close of the opera.

ENO’s revival of Deborah Warner’s beautiful staging is exemplary from start to finish. Aided and abetted by Tom Pye’s evocative designs, Jean Kalman’s exquisite lighting and Finn Ross’ video projections, she directs a production that is not only a feast for the eye, but with its constantly-changing vistas of Venice is both fluid and cinematographic.

All performances of this opera stand or fall by the performance of the protagonist and tenor John Graham-Hall’s assumption of Aschenbach is not only a tour de force vocally, but dramatically as well. On stage for the entire evening he charts the progress from the prim, stiff-upper lipped writer we see at the start to the dishevelled shadow of his former self at the close unerringly, and his singing is spot-on as well.

The supporting cast matches him for dramatic integrity, with Andrew Shore in a series of multiple roles and Tim Mead as The Voice of Apollo standing out in particular. Sam Zaldivar is an enigmatic Tadzio who contributes athleticism, agility and a serene sense of stillness to this ‘danced’ role.

Conductor Edward Gardner secures idiomatic and stylish playing from the ENO orchestra, in what is one of the most hauntingly beautiful performances to be seen at ENO all season.

There are only four more performances, so make your way to the box office, as operatic performances don’t get much better than this.

GT gives this 5/5

For more information and to book tickets, click here


Words: Keith McDonnell

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