Saturday 22 June 2013

Death in Venice at the London Coliseum

ENO Death in Venice 2013, John Graham-Hall (c) Hugo Glendinning
ENO Death in Venice 2013, John Graham-Hall
(c) Hugo Glendinning
When Deborah Warner's production of Britten's Death in Venice was new, in 2007, John Graham Hall performed the title role when the production travelled to La Scala and received good reviews in Opera Magazine. At the time, I thought it a pity that we were being deprived of Hall's remarkable performance in the UK particularly as I had doubts about Ian Bostridge's Aschenbach (see my review of the original 2007 performance). So this makes the return of Warner's production (designed by Tom Pye with costumes by Chloe Obolensky) doubly welcome, as the production is one of the most striking and visually stylish to have been produced at ENO in recent years. Andrew Shore played the baritone roles, with Tim Mead as Apollo and Edward Gardner conducted.

Warner and Pye evoke Aschenbach's Venice as a world of misty gondola rides and constantly reflected water. Working with a simple set which incorporated shiny black marble floor which lighting designer Jean Kalman had the image of reflected water moving across the stage throughout. Tom Pye's designs were finely fluid and very evocative; we did see Venice, but only fleetingly in the distance, mainly the cyclorama was just a wide open space or partially hidden. Venice was as much in Aschenbach's mind as in reality.

The opera was performed without surtitles (hurrah), which put a lot of emphasis on Hall's diction. Death in Venice is a very wordy opera, with Aschenbach talking to us in the recitative sections. Hall's diction was fine, but more than that, his performance was very text based, he made a lot of the words. This is, I think, essential and in the recitatives he seemed to be talking directly to us. The result, finely accompanied on the piano by Murray Hipkin, was intensely confessional.

Hall does not have the most beautiful of voices (in contrast to Bostridge and to Pears) and this, combined with the sheer intensity of his performance, made Aschenbach less cerebral and more vividly human. Pears' performance of Aschenbach was very much about the struggle of the artist whereas with Hall you very much felt the personal pull. Put bluntly, Hall's Aschenbach was very much a tortured old bloke in love with a younger boy, it was a very human, thrillingly intense and completely inhabited account of the role. He also brought a remarkable range of colours to the voice, bringing every moment of the vocal line to life.

 I still feel that Warner has dampened some of the opera's edge by having Apollo (Tim Mead) simply as a bloke on the beach in white shirt and trousers, matched by Dionysius (Andrew Shore) in black. The two's dialogue not so much the pull of the gods as voices in Aschenbach's head. This approach is paralleled by her turning the games in act one into simple beach games with no visual reference to antiquity. In the games, Kim Brandstrup's choreography was as vigorously effective as ever.

But where this revival gained was in Andrew Shore's creepy presence, singing the seven baritone roles and clearly linking them. Even when saying (singing) the most banal of things, Shore was able to suggest awful undertones. You were never quite clear who this bloke was or what his intentions were, but you knew that he wasn't good. Again he had a good feel for words, for diction and for the colours in the voice. It helps that Shore has a strong stage personality, so that the series of vignettes came over well and provided a fantastic foil for Hall.

The strength and vividness of the two leads meant that this was a very present production. And this was matched by the smaller roles, all finely taken.

ENO Death in Venice 2013, Sam Zaldivar (c) Hugo Glendinning
ENO Death in Venice 2013, Sam Zaldivar
(c) Hugo Glendinning
Laura Caldow was a beautifully evocative lady with the pearls, and Sam Zaldivar was simply stunning as Tadzio her son. Zaldivar, in his second year at the Royal Ballet School, had the admirable ability to hold the eye whilst doing very little. Mia Angelina Mather and Xhuliana Shehu were charming as Tadzio's sisters with Joyce Henderson as their governess and Marco Teizeira as Jaschiu, Tadzio's friend.

Peter Van Hulle made a strong impression as the hotel porter, Anna Dennis was the strawberry seller and a strolling player, Charles Johnson was the guide, Adrian Dwyer was a strolling player, Marcus Farnsworth was nicely mellifluous as the English clerk, Richard Edgar-Wilson the glass maker, Constance Novis the lace seller, Madeleine Shaw the beggar, Jonathan McGovern the restaurant waiter.

The chorus was on good form (chorus master for these performances Paul Brough) and it is a pleasure to report that their diction was admirable as well.

Edward Gardner conducted the work with great sweep and a fine grasp of the overall structure. Britten writes for a large orchestra and the London Coliseum pit is a very open one so that, as often in the past at this house, I felt that the orchestra were too present. There were many moments in the opera where you felt that the singers  had to work had to project their words and that a little sympathetic dampening of the sound in the pit would have been a great help. That said, the sound with all the tuned percussion in the gamelan influence sections, was truly glorious.

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