Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice in Venice is a dizzyingly surreal experience. The total effect is so intense and wonderful that the only surprise is that it hasn’t been done more often. In fact the piece has only been staged in Venice once before, in 1973, after its premiere in Aldeburgh.
La Fenice has played safe by hiring Italian stalwart designer/director Pier Luigi Pizzi, whose 2000 Genoa production had already won the Abbiati award. Presumably little adaptation was necessary to tailor his decorative vision to La Fenice’s stage.
Pizzi’s take on the work is ingenuously literal. Aschenbach arrives in a life-sized gondola, his hotel is a monumental marble edifice, Venice is depicted in scaled-down models of landmarks, costumes echo Visconti’s film. The dance (choreography by Gheorghe Iancu) fits the ornamental brief, and Pizzi takes the dream notion a level further by having the chorus off-stage and letting elegant supernumeraries mime their roles. The effect is disconcerting, like watching a badly synchronised film.
Marlin Miller is oddly cast as Aschenbach. He sings the part with polish and refinement, but no stretch of imagination can transform him from the young man he is into the old man he is playing. To further confuse the issue, Tadzio is danced by Alessandro Riga, whose solidly muscular physique is all masculine maturity, with none of the boyish levity and innocence required. The elderly poet and his adolescent muse seem to meet as two contemporaries on the beach, and all the poignant tension of the encounter is lost.
Scott Hendricks brings impressive dramatic range and expressive singing to the multiple roles of Traveller, Hotel Manager and so on, and the smaller parts are well sung. Bruno Batoletti keeps it all together with fluid efficiency, though he never quite achieves the clammy tension the piece can gain in the right hands.
This is a Death in Venice that calls to mind all the piece could be in other productions. With luck it will be less than a quarter-century before the theatre stages it again.