Monday 11 June 2007

Review of Death in Venice

Over 30 years since its premiere, Britten’s Death in Venice is still inextricably linked to the voice and personality of Sir Peter Pears. Pears's voice and performance style are embedded within the vocal part of Aschenbach. even more than such roles as Peter Grimes, with Aschenbach each performer needs to get over this hurdle and re-shape the part in his own mould.

One of the fascinations for Saturday's performance (9th June 2007) of Death in Venice at the London Coliseum was being able to see how Ian Bostridge approached the part. Bostridge is signficantly younger than many interpreters of the role. But, like Pears, Bostridge is an experienced lieder singer and fine singer of baroque and early music.

I heard Pears in the role at Covent Garden in the late 1970's (I think). Allowing for the gap of some 30 years, the biggest difference between Bostridge and Pears seemed to be Bostridge's emphasis on the music and his reliance on the beauty of his voice. Not that Pears's voice was not beautiful, even in the 1970's. But he tended to start from the words and his impeccable diction, with the music and beauty of voice coming second. Pears's Aschenbach engaged you partly because he was talking directly to you.

Bostridge's Aschenbach was more artful. The text seemed to come second and, sitting in the upper circle, at times his diction was a little occluded. Bostridge's Aschenbach was a stage cretion and did not, as yet, confide directly in us.

But that said, Bostridge's Aschenbach was a superbly impressive creation. Not a copy of Pears but his own inimitable version. One that was younger, more volatile but just as troubled by the pull between Apollo and Dionysius. Ultimately, though I found Bostridge estimable and impressive but not quite touching and moving. Perhaps I should say not quite yet, for I am sure that he will grow far further into the role and his first foray was indeed a tour de force.

It was helped by Deborah Warner's understated and stunningly beautiful production. Using just a series of sliding screens, floating curtains, a floor which could reflect light like water and a stunning lighting plot, Warner along with designer Tom Pye and lighting designer Jean Kalman created a production notable for its light, sheer beauty and simplicity.

Venice was evoked by the occasional pole, distant views of the city and above all, by the constant presence of water and its reflections of light. Aschenbach's confidences to the audience generally took place on a darkened stage wth a plethora of text projected onto it.

As Aschenbach's baritone antagonist, Peter Coleman-Wright displayed wonderful versatility. Each different role was beautifully delineated from the elderly fop to the obsequious hotel manager. Coleman-Wright's diction was excellent and each role came over with complete clarity, at times it was difficult to believe it was to same singer.

The problem was that Rose never seemed to be the least bit sinister. In fact good natured bonhomie seemed a prevalent characteristic. For me, the dynamics of the opera do not work if the baritone cannot be seen as sinisterly manipulative. But this smoothing of the baritone's discreetly underlying malevolence seems to have been on a par with Warner's production, which rather under played the Apollo/Dionysius dichotomy.

Aschenbach's dilemma came over as personal, never a pull between the influence of two deities. In their dialogue Coleman-Wright and Iestyn Davies could have been simply the embodiment of voices in Aschenbach's head. I want much more the feeling that Iestyn Davies was Apollo and not just some bloke in a white shirt and cream trousers.

This was particularly true of the games which conclude Act 1, where Kim Brandstrup's choreography kept the action well within the confines of teenage high spirits rather than games.

Ultimately the production worked as a whole because of the skill and beauty with which Warner and Pye conjured up their images.

The myriad smaller roles were taken by a mixture of ENO chorus members, members of their Young Singers programme and other young Singers. This generally worked well, though one or two of the chorus solo roles seemed to be slightly under cast. Anna Dennis as the Strawberry Seller and Jonathan Gunthorpe as the English Clerk stand out in the memory; Gunthorpe in particular made me with that his role had been longer.

All in all this was a memorable and enchanting production. I would hope that ENO will revive it soon so that we can see it when it has become further bedded in.

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