There are no references to beautiful baroque architecture in the set of this Death in Venice, directed by Yoshi Oida (revived by Rob Kearley), the last in the Festival of Britten series, and a revival of the 2007 Aldeburgh production. Designer Tom Schenk gives a Far Eastern flavour with a simple backdrop made up of textured panels the colour of burnt cork and low platform stages, and a suggestion of the Venetian context with a shimmering pool of water and waves on a small video screen. Gondoliers mime with poles and a couple of Japanese-style stage hands in black kneel at the edges waiting to deal with practical matters. We are not invited to think much about crumbling old buildings but about the characters surrounding crumbling old Gustav von Aschenbach, the celebrity author who has come to the city to revive himself.

Alan Oke as Gustav von Aschenbach © Robert Workman
Alan Oke as Gustav von Aschenbach
© Robert Workman

Alan Oke, as Aschenbach, is particularly successful in arousing our sympathies from early on, partly because we see him at the very beginning with a funeral wreath (it reappears at the end) for a wife we assume has died recently, which adds a considerable amount of poignancy to the anguish in his soul – it is hard to worry much about someone suffering just from writer’s block. Oke gives a wonderfully sustained and precise performance, as a visitor with an aristocratic air who is bothered and depressed by peddlers, beggars and the generally vulgar and mediocre, as a man who thinks he has found joy, as a man taken over by his obsession for the beautiful boy Tadzio and as a man stretched out and vomiting, possessed by cholera, who retains the remnants of his restraint right up to the last moment when he dies in his chair on the beach. Baritone Peter Savidge is terrific as the series of characters who, it could be assumed from the doomed author’s musings on Ancient Greece, have been sent by the god Dionysus to follow him in order to harass and ultimately destroy him. I loved him as the Elderly Fop, who was truly frightening, and he manages to bring considerable colour to the Hotel Manager.

The brisk and strangely cheerful gamelan-style music which Britten reserves mainly for the dancers is delivered with great verve by the Opera North orchestra conducted by Richard Farnes, the pentatonic sounds providing opportunities for gymnastic choreography (from Daniela Kurz, revived by Katherina Bader) and a good contrast for the chromaticism, Aschenbach’s obsession and all that Nietzschean philosophizing in the background. One of the dancers is the graceful and athletically accomplished Emily Mézières, who is turned into an androgynous Tadzio. I found this piece of casting to be disappointing, though, and tried to imagine the reasons for it. Perhaps someone thought of Shakespeare – Rosalind disguised as Ganymede in As You Like It, maybe – but it was not right here, and did not fit with the homoerotic passions which are linked in the main character’s mind with his search for aesthetic pleasure, and which were very significant for the composer when he was adapting Thomas Mann’s novella. It took away something important, I suppose because connections with classical sculptures of idealized bodies are made in the imaginations of many in the audience. Tadzio has to be male, and perhaps one day the librettist Myfanwy Piper’s suggestion that the dancers should perform in the raw will be taken seriously. That would certainly be in tune with Greeks at the time when Plato was alive. Apollo, who has dominated the author until his visit to Venice, is half way there, stripped to the waist: countertenor Christopher Ainslie is powerful and crystal-clear as the god of artistic control and independent thinking, dominating the stage too briefly.

The costuming is spot-on and convincingly accurate, beachwear from the Belle Epoque, with plenty of dresses in pure white, and enormous hats, just right for the European aristocracy at a fashionable resort. Riika Läser excels as a Polish mother under one of the splendid headpieces. We are left with percussive sounds: the fun on the beach will continue when the action is over, when the plague threat has receded. Dionysus is the winner of the game on this occasion, and so is Opera North, which has brought us such an excellent series of tributes to Benjamin Britten.

****1