Premièred in 1973, Death in Venice was Britten’s last opera and therefore his last chance to create a big starring role for his lifelong partner Peter Pears. The role of Gustav von Aschenbach, the ageing writer struck by a fatal infatuation for a beautiful young boy, is enormous, requiring the tenor to be on stage and fully involved for virtually the whole opera, running at nearly two and a half hours. For ENO last night, John Graham-Hall produced a bravura performance: clear of voice, melodious and utterly inhabiting the soul of Aschenbach as a once confident man slides into moral degeneration, unable to control his passions.

John Graham-Hall as Aschenbach © English National Opera
John Graham-Hall as Aschenbach
© English National Opera

Death, in the conception of Britten and librettist Myfanwy Piper, has many faces: the hotel manager who conspires to conceal the fact that Venice is racked by a cholera epidemic, the elderly fop who demonstrates the indignity that old age can bring, the god Dionysus who struggles to corrupt Aschenbach’s soul, the barber who peddles the illusion of youth, the Charon-like old gondolier. The narrative is given continuity by having all these roles (and more) sung by a single baritone. Andrew Shore sang and acted with authority, creating the very different moods required for each character - supercilious, soulful, fawning, conniving, mincing - but unifying them with a dark smoothness of delivery.

In contrast, the main life-giving character - the boy Tadzio - is mute: he and his family are portrayed by dancers. It’s a clever stroke, distancing Tadzio from reality and impressing on the viewer the nature of his relationship with Aschenbach, namely that the gulf between them is unbridgeable and that the relationship has no existence except in Aschenbach’s desires and imaginings. Sam Zaldivar moved well and embodied an appropriate sense of enigma.

Visually, Deborah Warner’s production is stunning. Sets, lighting and videography (Tom Pye, Jean Kalman and Finn Ross respectively) work as a single unit; a deceptively small number of physical items (Aschenbach’s deck chair, facades of beach huts, the funnel of a vaporetto, occasional tables) are blended with complex video and lighting effects to create many different views of Venice as well as the sea of words that is the author’s inner consciousness. Characters in lush Edwardian costumes (by Chloe Obolensky) swirl around the stage; Kim Brandstrup’s choreography completes a powerful image of turn of the century decadence.

Musically, Ed Gardner brings the sort of high quality performance from the ENO orchestra to which we’ve become accustomed from him. Britten’s score abounds with short snatches of intense beauty, drawing on an exceptionally diverse musical palette. The scoring includes a rich and varied percussion section, with the sounds of Balinese gamelan music particularly in evidence, which Britten uses to keep shifting the soundscape. It’s not always easy to follow as a coherent whole, but individual passages are breathtaking, and the last few minutes of the opera left me gasping. Some of the vocal writing is also outstanding, particularly the relatively small part of Apollo, sung with elegance and purity of tone by countertenor Tim Mead.

But the production has an Achilles heel: poor diction. Death in Venice is a very wordy opera; while much can be understood from music and setting, there is also a great deal of text where characters are telling you what is happening elsewhere in the city, a great deal more which is on an intellectual level, and a fair amount of Italian being spoken by the locals. This is the first time I have seen the opera, and I was careful not to read the synopsis in advance. This was a mistake: ENO chose not to provide surtitles, and while Graham-Hall was mostly understandable, everyone else was mostly not, and I spent the 85 minutes of Act I struggling hard to capture as much of the text as I could. Much of the time, I found it genuinely hard work to understand the details of what was supposed to be happening. In the interval, I read the Act II libretto on a smartphone, and enjoyed Act II hugely more as a result.

If you go to this production, I strongly recommend reading the libretto in advance. It’s particularly important because Death in Venice is an opera which demands a certain level of cultural background on the part of the listener. It’s helpful to know about Venice - the label “La Serenissima”, what and where the Lido is, what sort of wind is the Scirocco, and so on. Parts of Act II will be totally lost on you if you don’t know the premise of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy or the relationship between Socrates and Phaedrus. Of course, it’s possible to enjoy the opera without having this background, but the experience becomes diluted, the more so if you’re unable to make out the words in the first place.

Its high intellectual and aesthetic demands mean that Death in Venice isn’t going to be an opera for everyone: much of what you get in mainstream opera (including many of Britten’s other compositions) is simply absent. But if you’re happy to engage with it on its own terms, there is much beauty to be found. The visuals in this ENO production are a true feast for the eyes, and the overall high quality of performance make this production well worth seeing.