Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice tackles big themes – the clash between Apollonian and Dionysian impulses, the function of creativity, the meaning of beauty, the irresistible magnetism of youth – and the Opéra National du Rhin’s new production isn’t afraid to add yet more layers to its interpretation, leaning into the story’s fascination with sickness, isolation, imagination and madness, and giving them a thoroughly contemporary spin.

Death in Venice at Opéra National du Rhin
© Klara Beck

Shot in February, the production works particularly well as a film, with the recorded sections integrated seamlessly rather than projected onstage, adding to the cleverly disorientating effect of the mise en abyme of stages and screens in Jean-Philippe Clarac and Olivier Deloeuil’s staging, which breaks the space down into boxes and berths, shadows and screens, with blinds that snap shut and performers seemingly trapped behind glass.

Within this hall of mirrors, the borders and boundaries Gustav von Aschenbach must cross on his philosophical journey become blurred, theoretical, troubled and troubling. The performance operates within a kind of lockdown, with ‘ambiguous Venice’ a murky fever dream: the gondola journey becomes a static reverie, the ‘view from the hotel’ a tiny oil painting, and Aschenbach’s visions of “the ease that wide horizons bring” becomes ironic at best, frightening at worst, swamped as he often is by expanses of black, unlit backdrop.

The effect is both claustrophobic and tremendously effective, though it does come with some practical drawbacks. At times, it was a shame to have the singers in the wings, as in the ensemble piece ‘Bride of the Sea’, when the Opéra’s chorus, under Alessandro Zuppardo’s smooth direction, really makes Britten’s glittering choral writing shine. In moments like these, it seems they deserve to be in the spotlight – masks notwithstanding.

Death in Venice at Opéra National du Rhin
© Klara Beck

Meanwhile, Toby Spence’s Aschenbach crackles with energy from start to finish: barring a few standout moments, the role may not be virtuosic, but it is a demanding one, and Spence gives it his all. His performance grants the character a wide-eyed, querulous intensity worthy of a Shakespearean fool; a convincing take on this poor soul adrift in a landscape he does not understand. There was a certain roughness around the edges of some of his recitatives, but then the role perhaps requires privileging the declamatory over the lyrical; besides, he imbued the few luminous moments Britten allows his main character with real loveliness (“I love you”, “The truth!”).

The standout performance, however, was delivered by Scott Hendricks, who wheeled through his character’s seven different incarnations with a fiery mix of elegance, style, and sheer commitment. Both vocally and physically, his range of transformations was quite astonishing, from the Elderly Fop’s falsetto wheedling to the burlesque seductions of the Leader of the Players. The combination of his smooth, fluid baritone with his no-holds-barred character interpretations was very impressive. There were also several standout cameos amongst the strong supporting cast, namely Laurent Deleuil as the English Clerk, Peter Kirk as the Porter, and Julie Goussot as the unnervingly seductive Strawberry Seller. As the Voice of Apollo, Jake Arditti’s clear countertenor tones were conclusively outshone by Hendrick’s Dionysian bombast, and his performance ended up feeling a little one-dimensional – though his stint as a moving statue was acrobatically very impressive.

Death in Venice at Opéra National du Rhin
© Klara Beck

Throughout the opera, the crystal-clear recording pulls the listener from their living room right into the beating heart of the Orchestre Symphonique de Mulhouse’s flawless performance, where the harp, the piano, the cymbals, xylophones and glockenspiels that embroider this subtle, shifting, atmospheric score can really shine. If this means we get a few creaks and coughs amplified, it seems a fair price to pay.

Interestingly, the opera’s preoccupation with youth is rendered here less as romantic and more as philosophical obsession, with young Tadzio an echo of Aschenbach’s lost youth, and the lines between reality and dream, memory and invention, are sometimes difficult to work out. Yet even this finally works in the production’s favour. Throughout Act 1, as we see Aschenbach variously wandering aimlessly through museums and graveyards, strapped to a hospital bed, and sinking into substance abuse, it is difficult to tell if we are bearing witness to a slow descent into madness or to something more troubling – “the whole experience odd, unreal, out of normal focus”, as the writer himself describes his journey. When the plague finally comes into focus in Act 2, not as private haunting but as public infection, it is all the more affecting.

Contradictions in the press, insufficient safety measures, dangers being hushed up or underplayed by the authorities, all while an inescapable miasma of sickness hangs in the air... Aschenbach’s terrors are not only real but wholly contemporary. Death in Venice is perhaps the perfect pandemic opera, but the Opéra National du Rhin’s production doesn’t labour the Covid-19 parallels: instead, it lets the creeping horror of the original story slowly make itself known – all the better to stay with you when the curtain drops and the credits roll.


This performance was reviewed from Opéra National du Rhin's video stream

Death in Venice at Opéra National du Rhin
© Klara Beck
Death in Venice at Opéra National du Rhin
© Klara Beck
Death in Venice at Opéra National du Rhin
© Klara Beck