In Britten's artistic life there was always a tension between widespread public recognition and the radical uniqueness of the experiences recounted in his works. Attending a performance of an opera by Britten, one sometimes has the feeling of breaking into an intimacy that was never intended to be exposed so bluntly, a message that shyly avoids being put down in words and notes. And yet there is a sense of honesty in Britten's music that proves a genuine longing for communication, as if music was his main way of bounding himself to the rest of the world. This clash has always been a major issue for performers and specialists in Britten's music. Notably Jon Vickers proudly claimed that he had made Peter Grimes into an archetypical role, dragging the drama out of its local constraints and placing it in a broader context. Willy Decker, in one of his most brilliant stage works, confronts the paradox in a similar way, offering a fascinating show that enhances the opera's universal pulse while playing down some of its invaluable singularity.

John Daszak (Gustav von Aschenbach) © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
John Daszak (Gustav von Aschenbach)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Britten's last opera is a classic, a sour epitome of his immense artistic legacy which is gaining, step by step, the place it deserves in the operatic repertoire. When Britten wrote Death in Venice he suffered from a severe heart condition that was fatally aggravated by his reluctance to undergo surgery before finishing the opera. The shadow of death eerily pervaded the score and contributed to the making of a true musical testament. It feels as if in the last moment Britten had resolved the opposition between order and chaos that had always defined his artistic endeavours.

In Death in Venice, suffering, illness and decay do not have any moral direction but are at the very core of Aschenbach's extreme experience of beauty. This is why Aschenbach's decision to stay in Venice after the cholera outbreak is completely deprived of drama. He, as Britten himself, peacefully toys with the idea of dying in Venice and his serene final acceptance is in fact a submissive plunge into an abyss of infinite beauty and boundless love. The triumph of Apollo is necessarily the triumph of Dionysos.

Tom Asmann (Gustav von Aschenbach, dancer) and Tomasz Borczyk (Tadzio) © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
Tom Asmann (Gustav von Aschenbach, dancer) and Tomasz Borczyk (Tadzio)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

For this première in Madrid, recently appointed artistic manager Joan Matabosch has chosen the production he commissioned for the Liceu six years ago. Decker's main purpose is to translate the opera's subtle network of ideas and sensations into a coherent and understandable, even rational visual code based on a set of universal and sometimes evident icons (Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, Caravaggio's Bacchus). He is not to be blamed for trying to make intelligible a complex opera, but it is true that some of the half-formed and unspeakable mysteries of Britten's universe are lost in the way. In any case, the production is a remarkable technical feat, with smooth and dynamic transitions and a great sense of rhythm, and goes beyond the mere illustration of the plot, showing a deep understanding of the story. The result is a visually enticing show, full of powerful images and symbols that evolve organically as the drama unfolds and Tadzio's overwhelming presence takes over the stage.

The production reaches its climax in the “Games of Apollo”, a scene that Decker uses as the axis of the production, mixing elements from the rest of the plot (the boys in the beach, the ball game) and giving them new oneiric meanings. In his dream, Aschenbach finally loses control over himself and is thrown into a frantic and desperate dance with Tadzio, the eastern Orpheus that leaves him speechless and reduces all his writing skills to an eloquently clumsy "I love you".

Death in Venice's score is extremely intricate and interplays with most of Britten's previous works, especially with The Prince of the Pagodas and Curlew River, where he had started to assimilate the Gamelan-like music which defines the role of Tadzio. Alejo Pérez, a fine contemporary music conductor but hardly a Britten specialist, offered a correct and tactful first reading, as if he was not confident in the language and worried about making stylistic blunders. Although he failed to give a distinct rendition, it was overall a clear and skillful exposition of the score.

Leigh Melrose (Elderly fop) and John Daszak (Gustav von Aschenbach) © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
Leigh Melrose (Elderly fop) and John Daszak (Gustav von Aschenbach)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Aschenbach is one of the most difficult roles Britten wrote for Pears, always on stage and bearing all the weight of the drama. John Daszak proved that he masters the style, with a clear diction and a natural phrasing that depicted a specially intellectual and doubtful Aschenbach. He moved comfortably along the vocal range and had some beautiful moments, as the Phaedrus monologue. On the other hand, Leigh Melrose was not a strong choice for the seven baritone roles, with almost unintelligible English and exaggerated acting. Anthony Roth Costanzo was just correct as the Voice of Apollo.