It is said that Benjamin Britten's last opera, Death in Venice, is his most autobiographical. It was a work for which he delayed a heart operation in order to finish. Based on Thomas Mann's novella from 1911 (called a “tragedy of a degradation”) and made famous by the Luchino Visconti movie in 1971, Britten’s opera, premiered in 1973 at the Aldeburgh Festival, was shown at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in a new production staged by Graham Vick and conducted by Donald Runnicles.

Paul Nilon (Aschenbach) © Marcus Lieberenz
Paul Nilon (Aschenbach)
© Marcus Lieberenz

The single set – a garish, neon-green, box stage by Stuart Nunn – is dominated by an oversized funerary frame with a vintage photo of Thomas Mann. Next to it, an equally oversized, faded bunch of flowers, which also serve as beach boulders and canal bridges. Black chairs are alternatively gondolas, toys, or even serve as weapons. The 17 scenes of the opera ebb and flow literally like the tide at the Lido, with singers and dancers entering and exiting from left to right or right to left via eight doors on either side. Wolfgang Göbbel provides the glaring light of the Lido and the emotive chiaroscuro of Venice's canals.

Paul Nilon (Aschenbach) and Rauand Taleb (Tadzio) © Marcus Lieberenz
Paul Nilon (Aschenbach) and Rauand Taleb (Tadzio)
© Marcus Lieberenz

Vick shows us all the trappings of an elegant but decadent society, seen from the perspective of the protagonist Gustav von Aschenbach, a successful writer suffering from writer’s block and hoping for inspiration in Venice. Instead, he falls in love with young Tadzio, the teenage son of an aristocratic Polish family on holiday at the same hotel. Tadzio, played here by Rauand Taleb, is neither particularly handsome nor sexy, but Aschenbach probably recognises echoes of his own youth in him. Both the young man and his family are mute roles in Britten’s work and are cast here by solo members of the Deutsche Oper Ballet, as are many of the other characters.

The evening clearly belongs to Paul Nilon, the lyric tenor who embodies Aschenbach with a natural implicitness that defies the tremendous stamina needed to be onstage for the entire length of this almost two and a half hour long opera. While Nilon’s timbre is not as delicate as that of Peter Pears, for whom the opera was originally written, it is the intensity of his interpretation that suits the intimate atmosphere of the work so well.

Paul Nilon (Aschenbach) and Seth Carico © Marcus Lieberenz
Paul Nilon (Aschenbach) and Seth Carico
© Marcus Lieberenz

Bass-baritone Seth Carico is entirely convincing in each one of his seven roles – as barber, hotel manager and gondolier, etc. It is these characters that show normal life, anchoring in reality the emotional outpourings of Aschenbach. The Apollo of countertenor Tai Oney adds an otherwordly accent as he battles Dionysus in a dream for the soul of the poet. Twenty-four out of thirty-eight members of the company's ensemble appear in the many small roles that Britten integrated into his score. Alexandra Hutton as the strawberry seller and Andrew Dickinson as the hotel porter deserve special mention. Adelle Eslinger is the on-stage pianist who accompanies Aschenbach’s recitatives and emotional outpourings with melancholic intuition, while he watches the goings on, enchanted and entranced, from his hotel room window.

Paul Nilon (Aschenbach) and Rauand Taleb (Tadzio) © Marcus Lieberenz
Paul Nilon (Aschenbach) and Rauand Taleb (Tadzio)
© Marcus Lieberenz

Ron Howell is the choreographer who, with Vick, creates the sense of fluidity, of tides and currents, of emotions swaying to and fro, of Aschenbach struggling with his Germanic discipline and his new found feelings for Tadzio.

Britten composed for a large orchestra, with outstanding solo moments for the percussion, oboe and clarinet sections. Even when it premiered in 1973, it was not considered avant-garde, but well-crafted background music. Donald Runnicles makes the most of it and has the orchestra imbue a sense of foreboding, building tension up to the dramatic conclusion.

The audience gave a very warm reception for Nilon and Carico as well as the entire ensemble. A clear win for the Deutsche Oper Berlin.