Friday, December 15, 2017

Glorious and Tragic: ENO's Death In Venice

I could not listen to the Met’s “The Merry Widow” last night (or most nights) so to escape the brutal New England chill, I decided to watch the 2012 revival of Deborah Warner’s production of Britten’s “Death in Venice” for the English National Opera. I have loved this work since my high school days, and my appreciation of it has only grown to a point where I’m beginning to think – despite Grimes/Budd/Gloriana/War Requiem all being at the top of the heap - it may be one of Britten’s most ingenious scores.

Several weeks ago there was a discussion here about this opera being "dull" and/or "uninspired." I couldn't disagree more if I wanted to. My dear, long-missed friend and one time frequently marvelous list member, Ann Purtil credited the Met’s production as being responsible for pulling her back into the world of opera. So there’s that.


Even having only seen it on video, Warner’s is one of the most innovative, creative, seamless productions I’ve seen in some time. The integration of dance, movement, lighting and acting are wed to Britten’s most unusual score in a manner that feels completely organic. There is nothing extraneous, nothing that does not serve and move forward this beautiful tragedy to its heartbreaking conclusion.

As much as I loved the Aschenbach’s of Peter Pears and Robert Tear, John Graham-Hall doesn’t portray the tortured “hero” so much as inhabit him entirely. I felt I was witnessing the disintegration of this character so intimately it bordered on voyeurism. Onstage nearly throughout, Graham-Hall sings with the required refined elegance Britten demands here, but it is his integration of myriad facial expressions, reaching gestures of limbs combined with that voice that reflects Aschenbach discomfort with life. When he speaks of his dead wife and recently married daughter, it is shot through with an inherent sadness I’ve never before noticed – or at least paid much attention to. Graham-Hall elevates this brief moment to the point where it feels like the raison d'être for all that transpires from start-to-finish. Here is an artist at the height of his powers delivering a performance that will haunt me to the grave.

Aschenbach being onstage nearly throughout and having the lion’s share of the text, “Death in Venice” is oft-dismissed as a one-man show, which is about as far from the mark as it gets. This performance gives us Andrew Shore – who, within minutes – made mincemeat of my initial reservations. He brings to brilliant life all of the disparate characters, tying each to the other with the genius of a master storyteller. Ultimately, his is the sinister, guiding hand on the complex, confusing, road to hell.

Tim Mead makes a chillingly handsome appearance as Apollo singing in what could easily be called “heldencounter.”

Former Royal Danish Ballet dancer (and current Boston resident) Sam Zaldivar is perfectly cast as Tadzio making not only plausible, but understandable Aschenbach’s obsession. He is appealing in his naturalness and his execution of the difficult, at times wildly acrobatic choreography of Kim Brandstrup. Brandstrup’s dance and movement charge this difficult work with a fluidity that ripples throughout and he and Warner manage to magically
maneuver a large company of chorus, actors, dancers and principals through the opera’s many scenes and locales in an almost dizzying fashion.

Edward Gardner leads the ENO forces through this amazing score with a master’s hand, ever a judicious balancing act of percussive, piano, orchestra and wordless chorus who in concert create a painting for our eyes and ears. This is the first time I’ve experienced this opera where I felt it almost springing directly over centuries from Monteverdi to right now. The-house audience remain rapt and silent for close to a minute as all of us watch Tadzio elegantly pirouetting into the blinding sun as Aschenbach slumps into his final sleep.

For those unfamiliar with this opera, I can’t think of a more appealing way to remedy that situation. For fans, you owe yourselves the opportunity to experience this one. It is magnificent. It is available on DVD, or "for free" for Amazon Prime members.

I recently learned Warner’s production was slated for New York City Opera, but was ultimately nixed. That would have been something.


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