Death in Venice, Coliseum, London – review

Although Benjamin Britten’s centenary does not fall until November, June has clearly been designated Britten month. While the Aldeburgh Festival is marking its founder’s centenary with an imaginative programme of out-of-the-ordinary events, the two London opera companies are offering as their tributes a pair of the major operas.

In the case of English National Opera this means a revival of its 2007 production of Britten’s last opera Death in Venice. Since the original performances, Deborah Warner’s production has also been seen staged in Brussels and at La Scala, Milan, where it scored a notable success with English tenor John Graham-Hall in the all-encompassing role of Gustav von Aschenbach. Production and tenor are reunited here.

Although Death in Venice is best suited to a theatre with the intimacy of Aldeburgh Festival’s Maltings, where it had its premiere, Warner’s staging is successful at re-imagining the opera on a large scale. The skyline of Venice and beach on the Lido are seen as simple, striking, widescreen images, bathed in the glittering Venetian light so vividly depicted in Britten’s music. Though the many scene changes are irritating (how often do the elegant, white silk curtains of the Grand Hôtel des Bains swish back and forth?), Warner is always faithful to the spirit of the score.

Graham-Hall’s Aschenbach is more challenging and original. Highly charged from the outset, he embodies the struggle between Apollo and Dionysus which is at the heart of the opera with extraordinary immediacy, as if Aschenbach is being physically torn apart from within. He is vivid in the long passages of self-communing, where barely a word gets lost, but his voice (more of a character tenor) has to be carefully managed to get around the lyrical music, which rarely flowers at it should. As an overall portrayal, though, Graham-Hall’s Aschenbach is gripping.

In the seven roles of Aschenbach’s nemesis, Andrew Shore seemed unaccountably subdued at this performance, but may come fully to life later in the run. Tim Mead sang with due radiance as Apollo and Sam Zaldivar made a nicely cheeky Tadzio. With Edward Gardner showing again that he is as fine a Britten conductor as any around today, this Death in Venice adds up to an appreciable centenary offering.

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