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.
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.
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.
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