Thursday 18 June 2015

Beginnings and Endings - An encounter with Paul Curran, director of Death in Venice at Garsington

Britten's Death in Venice in rehearsal at Garsington Opera
Britten's Death in Venice in rehearsal at Garsington Opera
We do not get to see the work of director Paul Curran very frequently in the UK, so the new production of Britten's Death in Venice at Garsington Opera is a double cause for celebration; a chance to see both Paul Curran's work and Britten's late masterpiece. Paul Curran will be directing the new production at Garsington Opera at Wormsley which opens on 21 June 2015, designed by Kevin Knight, choreography by Andreas Heise, conducted by Steuart Bedford with Paul Nilon as Aschenbach and William Dazely in the baritone roles.

Paul Curran - credit John Snelling
Paul Curran - credit John Snelling
This is very much a production of beginnings and ending. Benjamin Britten's final opera is receiving its first production at Garsington Opera, conducted by Steuart Bedford who conducted the work's premiere in 1973, and it will be Paul Curran's first production of the opera and Paul Nilon's debut in the title role.

I spoke to Paul Curran by telephone in a gap between rehearsals, to find out more about the production. Paul Curran has directed a lot of Britten operas and he quotes 13 Midsummer Night's Dreams, eight Peter Grimes and Rape of Lucretia. None of these, it might be added, in the UK. But when I suggest that taking on Death in Venice would enable him to tick another opera off his Benjamin Britten list, he was quite emphatic that he had never been that sort of box ticking type of directer. In fact he had nearly refused the job, saying that he felt it was a monstrously difficult piece and that he had been rather apprehensive about it.

But he has loved the Thomas Mann novella since he was a teenager, and the sheer challenge of doing Death in Venice at Garsington attracted him. Much of the first act of the opera is set in misty, evocative Venice, so Paul Curran and designer Kevin Knight needed to evoke this in the theatre at Garsington where the late afternoon sun streams in through the transparent sides of the auditorium. Their solution is to use a series of gauzy curtains which Paul think will help create the right atmosphere.

What is beauty, and how does it become an obsession?

We return to the subject of Thomas Mann's novella, and Paul comments that that Britten's opera very successfully brings out the themes of the novella. In fact he points out that Visconti's famous film cut virtually all of the Greek philosophy, whereas Britten paid attention to the whole Dionysian and Apollonian discussion. Paul has seen the opera a few times and feels that that challenge of doing it is partly to make sure that it is not about an old queen running after a young man. For him the theme of the opera is obsession, and he feels that this is what Britten drew out of the novella; what is beauty, and how does it become an obsession? Paul points out that for most of the opera, the baritone characters offer the Aschenbach choices, leading him to choosing his own destiny. Paul adds that there is sex in the production, there are evidently sailors and rather rude players, but these are to show the sort of things that Aschenbach does not like. Paul Nilon will be singing the role of Aschenbach for the first time and this was a great benefit, so that for the two of them each day became a voyage of discovery.

Peter Pears as Aschenbach in the original production of Death in Venice, 1973. Photo Nigel Luckhurst
Peter Pears as Aschenbach
in the original production
of Death in Venice, 1973.
Photo Nigel Luckhurst

Death in Venice was Britten's final opera, he was unwell at the time of writing it and put off treatment until he had finished it. Paul sees it not only as an important piece, but as one with interesting parallels in its themes with Peter Grimes, Britten's second opera and first major success.

'bloody difficult'

Paul has directed Britten's operas all over the world (in USA, Italy, Norway, Finland) and does not see attitudes to Britten's works as noticeably different to the UK. Partly this is because they are 'bloody difficult'. He talks about directing Peter Grimes in Naples for the re-opening of the San Carlo. By contract the chorus were not obliged to sing out unless the orchestra was present, but he had to persuade them that they had to sing out at every rehearsal. The music is difficult and the chorus needs to be really inside it. He won them over and they sang the music, just as the production won over the local press which was dubious about opening the theatre with a modern non-Italian work.

Paul in fact trained as a dancer until injury forced him to change his career. He went on to study at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Australia (where one of his fellow graduates was Cate Blanchett) and became an assistant to Baz Luhrman, But Paul also adds that he was a musician too, he played the clarinet in the Glasgow Schools Orchestra in his native Glasgow. He does not approach directing the production as a dancer, but it does influence the way he works. He always starts with the music, then the text and then the physicality. 80% of our communications come from body language so he insists on considering body language as part of the production. Paul has worked with many distinguished singers, and they appreciate this discussion of body language as it helps them create the character. He quotes the mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcelona as commenting that Paul was the first director who had talked to her about the physicality of being a man on stage.

How you create characters through movement

Because of his dance background Paul is interested in how you create characters through movement, and will create quite a distinctive feel in Death in Venice. The opera calls for explicitly choreographed sections, with both Tadzio and his mother played by dancers, but not every production makes the most of this. Paul is not working on the choreography himself, he has brought in Andreas Heise with whom he worked in Norway. Paul finds Andreas's work on the piece brilliant, and talks about how the choreography has been seamlessly integrated into the opera. Steuart Bedford, who worked with Britten on the opera and conducted the premiere, is evidently thrilled at the way dance has been integrated, including in many places that you would not expect.

I ask which other Britten operas Paul would like to do and he says that he would love to do Turn of the Screw and Gloriana. This latter nearly came to pass in Oslo whilst he was General Manager of Norwegian National Opera (from 2007 to 2011), but it was a big co-production and fell apart financially.

Hannah Sandison as Rosemene in Paul Curran's production of Handel's Imeneo at the London Handel Festival, 2013. Photo credit Chris Christodoulou
Hannah Sandison as Rosemene in Paul Curran's production of Handel's Imeneo
at the London Handel Festival, 2013. Photo credit Chris Christodoulou
Future plans include a new production of La Traviata in Philadelphia in the Autumn. And he will be doing a world premiere in Dallas, Mark Adamo's Christmas opera Becoming Santa Claus which he describes as a clever amalgam of Santa Claus and Jesus! He goes on to add that he really admires what he calls Dallas Opera's crusade to promote new opera, adding that they will be doing five world premieres this season.


If anyone comes to one of his college productions expecting to see a 'Paul Curran Production' then they will be disappointed

Work in Britain has been relatively rare. He directed Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride at the Royal Opera House in 2011, and also directed Handel's Imenio for the London Handel Festival at the Royal College of Music, and directed Handel's Ariodante at the Royal Academy of Music. These latter two elicit the comment that he adores working with students and that he does a lot of teaching (at the Bolshoi he was doubly appreciated, because he was the only foreign teacher who could speak Russian).  He works directing student productions because he feels that it is invaluable that an experienced director works with them rather than a student director. He adds that if anyone comes to one of his college productions expecting to see a 'Paul Curran Production' then they will be disappointed the productions should be all about the students themselves. When working on Imenio, which he describes as a light and fluffy piece which he set in a spa, he was thrilled with the singers' development of the characters.

Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice opens at Garsington Opera on 21 June 2015 with further performances on 23, 27 June & 1, 4, 10 July 2015.

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