“Britten doesn’t sell.” Until Deborah Warner’s impressive production of Billy Budd last April, The Royal Opera hadn’t put any Britten on the main stage since Richard Jones’ (admittedly naff) Gloriana in 2013, the composer’s centenary year. A planned revival of Willy Decker’s Peter Grimes was scrapped because it was feared it wouldn’t put bums on seats. And although Sir David McVicar’s new staging of Death in Venice sees the work return to Covent Garden for the first time in over 25 years, it’s only been given five performances. Is this a house that believes in Britten?

Mark Padmore (Gustav von Aschenbach) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Mark Padmore (Gustav von Aschenbach)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

It should. Each of these five performances has sold out long ago and given McVicar’s classy production and the outstanding vocal – and dance – performances, it’s a show that deserves to sell out ten times over. Like any McVicar production, it has an expensive sheen and is beautifully produced, but there is more than surface gloss here. The director captures Aschenbach’s sense of restlessness and unease from the very first scene – a candlelit desk as he toys with a sand timer, struggling to overcome his writer’s block. Vicki Mortimer’s set has pillars gliding to effect seamless scene changes which add to this sense of instability – now the hotel foyer, now a café in the piazza, now St Mark’s Basilica. Yet McVicar is unafraid to drop the curtain – or at least a gauze – for some scene changes, when Mark Padmore’s haunting Aschenbach maintains the production’s tortured grip.

Mark Padmore (Aschenbach) and Gerald Finley (Elderly Fop) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Mark Padmore (Aschenbach) and Gerald Finley (Elderly Fop)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Also capturing the restlessness was Gerald Finley’s shape-shifting triumph through Britten’s seven incarnations of Aschenbach’s nemesis. The Canadian’s smooth baritone was perfect for the oily Hotel Manager but it was quite amazing the way he adapted it for his other six, whether as the prattling Barber, the grotesque, ukelele-strumming Player or floating his falsetto with roguish glee as the Elderly Fop. It was a tour de force of characterisation. Tim Mead’s Apollo dripped with honey, a suave ballet master directing the games at the Lido. There were also nice cameos from Dominic Sedgwick as the earnest English Clerk, Colin Judson as the Hotel Porter and Rebecca Evans as the Strawberry Seller. Richard Farnes expertly directed Britten’s brittle, queasy score, teasing out each unsettling phrase, with the piano accompanying recitatives as if it were Mozart.

Leo Dixon (Tadzio) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Leo Dixon (Tadzio)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Mark Padmore gave a towering central performance as Gustav von Aschenbach, from testy impatience at his writing desk to infatuation with the Polish youth, Tadzio, when he believes he’s finally found his inspiration, to disgust at the disease infecting the city and his own sense of decay. Padmore is a born Britten singer, balancing speech and lyricism beautifully and his diction was exemplary – no surtitles required. He is also able to caress head notes without any hint of archness or Peter Pears parody and there was no sense of tiredness in his tenor by the end of a long evening.

Tim Mead (Apollo), Leo Dixon (Tadzio) and Mark Padmore (Aschenbach) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Tim Mead (Apollo), Leo Dixon (Tadzio) and Mark Padmore (Aschenbach)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

McVicar taps into Aschenbach’s psyche uncannily well. It’s a neat touch to have the Hotel Manager onstage to overhear Aschenbach’s “I love you” declaration to the departed Tadzio at the end of Act 1, smiling as if to say, “You’ve fallen into my trap”. Act 2 begins in exactly the same place, as if the interval had been a freeze frame, a look of bemused ecstasy still worn on Aschenbach’s face. Later, crippled by anxiety, Aschenbach tosses and turns in bed as Tim Mead’s cool Apollo and Finley’s demonic Dionysus battle for his conscience, the god of pleasure winning out in a frenzied chorus (placed in the side stalls) with Tadzio leaping onto the bed while Aschenbach writhes.

Gerald Finley (Gondolier) and Mark Padmore (Aschenbach) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Gerald Finley (Gondolier) and Mark Padmore (Aschenbach)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

The production also has three non-singing stars. The first is Paule Constable’s superb lighting, depicting everything from the fog over the lagoon to sinister shadows to the sudden burst of Italian sunshine as the window in Aschenbach’s room is opened. The second is a magnificent black beast of a gondola which dominates the stage, manipulated by two handlers in highly effective manoeuvres. The third is Leo Dixon’s Tadzio, a beautiful dancer with cheekbones sculpted from marble. His lithe, graceful athleticism was captivating in the Games of Apollo. “You notice when you’re noticed,” sings our protagonist. And here Tadzio certainly notices Aschenbach and seems to take quite an interest in him, aware when the writer is dogging his steps across La Serenissima. Lynne Page’s choreography of the boys’ games at the Lido is beautiful, with swift balances, lifts and turns climaxing in Dixon’s Tadzio raised above their shoulders like a deity, truly a “Phoebus of the golden hair”.

Britten doesn’t sell? Good luck getting a ticket.


*****