William Dazeley as the Old Gondolier, Paul Nilon as Aschenbach © Clive Barda
William Dazeley as the Old Gondolier, Paul Nilon as Aschenbach
© Clive Barda
Menacing black clouds hung over the Wormsley Estate throughout Sunday evening. We were spared the worst of the rain, but it proved a fitting climate for Britten’s fable of death and decay in muggy, oppressive climes. Death in Venice is a rarity on the country house opera circuit, but proved an excellent choice for Garsington Opera, a company with a knack for maximising the potential of their limited space and resources. So it was here, the new production, directed by Paul Curran and designed by Kevin Knight, transporting us to foggy Venice as much though suggestion as through explicit visual cues. The small scale becomes a virtue: Everything here is up close, offering an intimacy that gradually transforms into unsettling claustrophobia for the intensely physiological final scenes.

The visuals for Death in Venice don’t change much. Almost every production follows the lead of Visconti’s film, the writer Aschenbach wears a beige suit and white panama, Tadzio, the object of his affections, wears a blue and white striped bathing costume. Around them, uniformed Venetians mingle with aristocratic tourists, all in period costume for an era around 1910. But Kevin Knight takes an innovative approach in creating the setting on Garsington’s small stage. The backdrop is a nebulous blue/grey, suggesting sky, cloud and water all at once. In front are set two white chiffon curtains in a cross formation. They are translucent, allowing figures to appear in silhouette behind. They are also often brought in close, leaving just a narrow gap centre stage, ideal for invoking a gondola ride, with Aschenbach sitting on his luggage and the gondolier looming over him behind. In these and several other scenes, a miniature panorama of the Venice skyline pops up against the backdrop. That felt unnecessary, given how well the scene had already been set through evocative suggestion.

Célestin Boutin as Tadzio, Paul Nilon as Aschenbach © Clive Barda
Célestin Boutin as Tadzio, Paul Nilon as Aschenbach
© Clive Barda
All the physical props – balustrades for the boat, furniture for the hotel lobby etc. – are mobile and quick to move. This allows the stage to be completely stripped, leaving maximum space for the choreography. This is a major part of the opera: Britten emphasises the distance between Aschenbach and Tadzio by making the boy and his whole family mute roles that are danced rather than sung. The choreography here, by Andreas Heise, is traditional but engaging. Tadzio is danced by Celestin Boutin, who is ideal, not so young as to shock us with the story’s overtones of paedophilia, though they remain hard to ignore.

Paul Curran has said that he was hoping to play down the specifically sexual side of the opera in favour of more universal themes of obligation and desire. I’d say he has failed on the first count, as the homoerotic dimension remains explicit, especially in the choreography. But those more universal themes are also explored in interesting ways. In two scenes, Britten transports us from Venice into a world of Greek mythology. At the end of the first act, Aschenbach watches games on the beach and imagines them as a contest between Apollo and Dionysus. A similar scene returns in a dream sequence in the second act. Both scenes are presented as sinister rituals, observed by a masked and black-cloaked chorus, somewhere between a Venetian masked ball and the orgy in Eyes Wide Shut. The presiding authority in both scenes is Apollo himself, superbly played by counter-tenor Tom Verney. The opera has a large cast of mostly very minor roles. All are well sung here, but Verney in particular stands out.

Paul Nilon gives an impressively psychological account of Aschenbach. His singing always feels like an inner monologue, the tortured writer questioning himself and his motives at every turn. Nilon’s sound is a little lacking in tone and melodic richness, and he seems to rely on a heavy vibrato for projection. But his diction is excellent, the words carried on a very declamatory vocal style, which is ideal for the Sprechstimme-like recitatives. Most of the secondary characters are conflated into a single multiple role, played here by William Dazeley. Excellent casting again, as Dazeley has both a fine baritone (the pick of the voices) and the acting ability to transform instantly from one character to the next. The sheer dramatic conviction of this production is one of its defining qualities, for which Dazeley deserves much of the credit.

© Clive Barda
© Clive Barda
Strong support throughout from the pit. Conductor Steuart Bedford has impeccable credentials with this opera, not least for having conducted its premiere in 1973. Now in his mid-70s, he is not so steady on his feet as he approaches the podium, but as soon as the music begins the years drop away. His conducting is focussed and lucid, dynamic but with every phrase carefully shaped. Excellent communication with the singers too. Some good playing from the large orchestra, especially the five busy percussionists whose sound defines this opera. One or two moments of poor control it the low brass were regrettable, and a shame too that there is only room in the pit for a less than ideal baby grand piano.

Minor quibbles apart, this is an excellent production. The work itself is a daring venture for the company, but given the amount of Britten expertise they were able to draw on, particularly from Curran and Bedford, perhaps it seemed an obvious choice. It certainly proves an ideal showcase for the company’s talents, and yet another demonstration of the surprising versatility of its innovative venue.