June 11, 2007 6:14 pm

A moving homecoming

Aldeburgh Music is building for the future. That is obvious in the literal sense from the bulldozers that have been on site since spring, heralding construction work that will greatly increase the educational facilities around the Maltings concert hall when the new buildings open in 2009.

More challenging has been the artistic rebuilding that has been going on since Benjamin Britten, the composer and joint founder of the Aldeburgh Festival, died in 1976. There is no easy option such as bricks and mortar for rebuilding a festival’s vision. It has taken 30 years of hard graft to keep Aldeburgh Music moving forwards: even in the 1980s when the prospects looked bleak the aim was always to attract fresh creative input, widen the international scope and introduce new, young composers.

Against the odds the festival kept its eyes on the future rather than the past. So it should be taken as a sign of self-confidence that this year’s programme was prepared to confront memories of the festival’s heyday by opening with a new production of Britten’s Death in Venice. Alone among Britten’s operas, Death in Venice was composed with performances at the Snape Maltings in mind – its premiere there in 1973 was one of the festival’s great events – but it has not been restaged there in the three decades since the composer’s death. There can be nowhere else that this opera works better. Every word can be heard in the Maltings’ fine acoustics and it helps hugely that the audience is close to the stage for a drama that depends on an intimate understanding of Thomas Mann’s protagonist. So much of what occurs (possibly everything) happens in Aschenbach’s mind.

Still, if anybody thought that these performances would be a trip down memory lane, they were mistaken. I was lucky enough to catch the original production at Aldeburgh when it was revived in 1975 (Britten was there, a shadowy figure, by that time in declining health) and there was hardly one aspect of this new production that resembled the original.

What director Yoshi Oida has given us is an elegant re-styling for the 21st century. Turning necessity into a virtue, he has used the limited facilities of the stage at the Maltings just as they are – a bare brick wall at the back, no sets, few props, with water and fire acting as the only elements to illustrate the atmosphere. Although most of the costumes belong to the Venice of Mann’s novella, there was an exquisite oriental feel to the production that threw up its own connections. The music of Bali was a major influence on Britten’s score and here the lure of the Far East lingered subtly, and the spare setting focused attention on essentials. In the title role, Alan Oke sang exceedingly well, and by keeping his character in control of his emotions well beyond the halfway mark made his portrayal of decline in the later stages doubly moving. By the end Aschenbach’s soul had been stripped as bare as the bricks on the back wall.

Oida’s most notable innovation was to dress the Dionysus figure who stalks the plot in the same clothes as Aschenbach at the start – a neat way of showing how the whole opera is Aschenbach’s psychological struggle with himself – but Peter Sidhom’s singing of the seven Dionysus roles was too heavy-handed to make the most of the idea. The choreography also created a jolt each time the members of Tanztheater Nürnberg wheeled on in modern dance style, but William Towers was a radiant Apollo and the small parts were adequately taken. The conductor Paul Daniel made up for the rather thin-sounding Britten-Pears Orchestra with a performance that had a strong sense of direction.

It is bizarre that this Death in Venice should coincide with another at English National Opera. As it happens, their strengths are more or less mutually exclusive but, by a decisive margin, it was hard not to feel that Aldeburgh had the best of it: this economical production was simply clearer in its mind about what the opera has to say. Only the original production has ever been more moving.

The other events of the first weekend were not a let-down. The Saturday morning recital at Aldeburgh Church sampled some of the later 20th-century Italian composers who rarely had much of a showing when Britten was in charge. The mezzo-soprano Anna Dennis and members of the Britten Sinfonia gave highly commendable performances of vocal works by Berio and Dallapiccola, but it was two solo works by Britten himself – the Suite for Harp played by Lucy Wakeford and the Six Metamorphoses after Ovid with Nicholas Daniel the chameleon oboist – that left the most striking impression.

In the afternoon the Exaudi Vocal Ensemble returned to Orford Church, scene of their triumph at last year’s festival. Following the Italian theme, they sang Gesualdo and Monteverdi, and then jumped feet first into the 20th century with pieces of mind-bending complexity by Sciarrino, Castiglioni, Scelsi and Nono. This is music that few people are likely to want to hear more than once, but if that one time is a performance by Exaudi they are not likely to forget it. Where else are there sopranos like these, guaranteed to hit the notes other choral singers cannot reach?

For the Saturday evening slot Aldeburgh reserved one of its star soloists, the pianist Alfred Brendel. He chose a programme of Viennese classics – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert – and played them with the unassuming depth that has always been his hallmark, an end-of-day contrast to the dazzle of Exaudi’s vocal pyrotechnics earlier. Taken as a whole, this opening weekend was the festival’s strongest for quite a few years: another building block towards a future that is looking a lot brighter than anybody could have imagined 20 years ago.

The Aldeburgh Festival continues until June 24. Tel +44 01728 687110

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