Wednesday 24 June 2015

Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice at Garsington - stunning personal vision

Celestin Boutin and Nina Goldman - Death in Venice, Garsington Opera - photo Clive Barda
Celestin Boutin and Nina Goldman
Death in Venice, Garsington Opera
photo Clive Barda

Benjamin Britten Death in Venice
Paul Nilon, William Dazeley, Celestin Boutin, Nina Goldman, dir: Paul Curran, cond: Steuart Bedford; Garsington Opera

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 23 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Stylishly elegant and evocative production of Britten's last opera

With its intense concentration on a single protagonist, Benjamin Britten's final opera Death in Venice does not get as many outings as might be expected, so it was with much anticipation that I looked forward to Paul Curran's new production at Garsington Opera with Paul Nilon in the title role. And having interview Paul about the production (see my article in this blog) I was doubly intrigued, about how he and designer Kevin Knight would be representing Venice in the sun-lit garden pavilion of the opera house at Garsington, and about the use of dance in the production. And, having seen the production's second night (on Tuesday 23 June 2015) we were not disappointed.

Paul Nilon sang the role of Gustav von Aschenbach, with William Dazeley in the five baritone roles,
Tom Verney as The Voice of Apollo, Joshua Owen Mills as the Hotel Porter, Henry Manning as the English Clerk, Nina Goldman as the Lady with the Pearls, Celestin Boutin as Tadzio, Georgie Rose Connolly as the Governess and Chris Agius Darmanin as Jaschiu. The conductor Steuart Bedford, the director was Paul Curran, the designer Kevin Knight, with lighting by Bruno Poet and Andreas Heise was the choreographer and assistant director.

Paul Nilon - Death in Venice - Garsington Opera - photo Clive Barda
Paul Nilon - Death in Venice - Garsington Opera
photo Clive Barda
Kevin Knight's set was simplicity itself, just a wide open expanse of blue on the backdrop with four long billowing translucent curtains which were deployed in various ways across the stage. We rarely saw the whole stage, and the backdrop was only completely revealed in the moments when Aschenbach is contemplating the view from the Lido and Britten's sinuous Venice theme ripples through the orchestra. Occasionally we got glimpses of an outline of the city, but this was a Venice of shadowy figures and hints. During the monologues, we would be aware of people passing, dimly seen through the curtains, so that emphasis was on Aschenbach himself and the way he saw the city and its people. The production was elegantly stripped down, without the plethora of props sometimes used. This stylish economy gave the result a highly poetic feel, which contrasted with the stocky, very corporeal figure of Paul Nilon's Aschenbach.

I am old enough to remember seen Peter Pears in his final performances as Aschenbach at Covent Garden in the 1980's and one of my abiding memories is of the tall elegance of Aschenbach in his interpretation. But Paul Nilon's Aschenbach was different, he was rumpled and careworn thus contrasting with the bare elegance of the surroundings and the lithe beauty of the young male dancers.

William Dazeley, Paul Nilon - Death in Venice - Garsington Opera - photo Clive Barda
William Dazeley, Paul Nilon
Death in Venice - Garsington Opera
photo Clive Barda
It is wrong to say that there is only one protagonist in Death in Venice, as effectively there are three. Aschenbach himself, played by Paul Nilon, the sinister baritone figures played by William Dazely and the young Tadzio, played by Celestin Boutin. Where Paul Curran's production differed from some other more recent ones was in the amount of dance used. Paul Curran and choreographer (and assistant director) Andreas Heise really used dance to create an expressive language for Tadzio, his family and the young men on the beach. And they were young men, not boys, all wearing figure hugging period bathing costumes which revealed every inch of their stunning musculature, giving the beach scenes a strong homo-erotic element. But this was visual beauty, and Celesin Boutin's dancing ensured that Tadzio was highly expressive but completely separate from Paul Nilon's Aschenbach.

In his interview with me, Paul Curran talked about his desire to make the opera more about obsession than simply and old queen chasing after young men. The extreme treatment of the Elderly Fop (William Dazeley) attracted to and beset by the sailors (aptly lively and not a little crude!) provided a keen contrast to the way Paul Nilon's Aschenbach simply looked at the young men on the beach, obsessing over their extreme physical beauty.

The role of Aschenbach is very much a portrait of Peter Pears' voice, and any singer taking on the role has to negotiate with this. Like many of the most successful post-Pears Aschenbach's Paul Nilon has a very different kind of voice. He has a rather robust, dramatic voice but his repertoire still stretches from the baroque to the contemporary and it is capable of great subtlety. Paul Nilon's voice is a distinctive, highly characterful instrument and profoundly plangent; it lacks perhaps a degree of surface sheen and sheer beauty, but that must be set against the wonderfully intelligent way that Paul Nilon uses it. The role of Aschenbach is a very wordy, text based role and rather than struggling with the words or occluding them, Paul Nilon made them the very centre of his performance. Not only could we hear every word, but each counted for something. He has a great range of colours in his voice, and he used them extensively, creating a strong sense of character and giving us a highly intimate performance of this perpetually anxious man. The result was extremely involving and highly intense, a performance which really held the stage.

William Dazeley, Paul Nilon - Death in Venice - Garsington Opera - photo Clive Barda
William Dazeley, Paul Nilon - Death in Venice - Garsington Opera
photo Clive Barda
William Dazeley by contrast was elegant and highly stylish in the baritone roles. In a role written originally for bass-baritone John Shirley Quirk, William Dazeley did not create that sense of dark foreboding but he brought a sinister charm too so that for all the characters' elegance you never quite trusted them. Each of the roles was nicely differentiated, but there was a thread running through them to. In the players scene he was suitably grotesque and the whole scene rather evoked another film director; Fellini rather than Visconti. But this was another element in Paul Curran's wish to show us the sort of vulgar sexual shenanigins that did not interest Aschenbach.

Tom Verney made a robust, characterful Apollo, and the games had a Venetian carnival quality too them with the chorus in gilt masks and black robes, and the boys in glittery bronze versions of their everyday costumes.

Celestin Boutin was stunning as Tadzio, creating a real sense of character for the young man and more than holding his own on a stage dominated by Paul Nilon. Celestin Boutin certainly looked stupendous, but with his dancing he added a new dimension. Nina Goldman was lively and personable as his mother, more nervy than I remember Deanne Bergsma being.

There were quite a few dancers, not only Celestin Boutin's Tadzio and Nina Goldman as his mother, the Lady of the Pearls, but the five young men on the beach, the Governess (Georgie Rose Connolly)and Tadzio's two younger sisters. All were involved in the dancing, which as I have said, spread out into other areas of the opera. The young man were not just objects of homo-erotic yearning, but made a clear play for the Governess for instance.

The remaining cast were all very strong, providing a secure ensemble and some highly characterful cameos including Joshua Owen Mills as the hotel porter and Henry Manning as the English Clerk, the young man who announces the spread of cholera. I was rather amused at the way that almost everyone in the opera seemed to operate on a tip basis, constantly demanding money from Aschenbach.

There was another point of visual reference in the production, perhaps not deliberate, which D. pointed out to me at the interval. The blue backdrop, with its distant view of Venice, rather evoked the mural in Jeremy Deller's English Magic (with its distant view of Venice and a large figure of William Morris demolishing an oligarch's yacht) and as Paul Nilon as Aschenbach was not dissimilar to William Morris the reminisence was even stronger.

In the pit Steuart Bedford drew a wonderfully transparent account of the score from the Garsington Opera Orchestra. But this was no aetherial acoustic vision, but one which was highly pungent. There were magical gamelan textures, but also grittier moments and a sense of the individual instruments playing a strong role in the opera's character (what Verdi called its tinto). Steuart Bedford ensured that the whole flowed smoothly, there was an easy elegance to the way the whole opera seemed completely natural.

This was a notable achievement all round. Paul Nilon's assumption of the role of Aschenbach will no doubt develop, but his was a great achievement and around him Paul Curran and his cast had created a highly distinctive, very personal and completely seductive vision of Britten's version of Mann's novella.

Celestin Boutin, Paul Nilon - Death in Venice - Garsington Opera - photo Clive Barda
Celestin Boutin, Paul Nilon - Death in Venice - Garsington Opera - photo Clive Barda

Full cast:

Gustav von Aschenbach a novelist - Paul Nilon
The Traveller / Elderly Fop / Old Gondolier / Hotel Manager / Hotel Barber / Leader of the Players / Dionysus - William Dazeley
Apollo - Tom Verney
Hotel Porter - Joshua Owen Mills
English Clerk / Youth  - Henry Manning
Polish Mother (the Lady with the Pearls) - Nina Goldman
Tadzio, her son - Celestin Boutin
Governess - Georgie Rose Connolly
Jaschiu, Tadzio’s friend - Chris Agius Darmanin
Youth / Glass Maker - Richard Dowling
Youth / Second American - Adam Temple-Smith
Youth / Polish Father / Guide - Piran Legg
Youth / Hotel Waiter - Daniel Rudge
Youth / German Father / Priest in St Mark’s - Bradley Travis
Lido Boatman / Restaurant Waiter - Joseph Padfield
Ship’s Steward / Gondolier - Huw Montague Rendall
Russian Father - Andrew Tipple
First American / Strolling Player - Adam Sullivan
Gondoliers - Pablo Strong, James Way
English Lady / Lace Seller - Rhiannon Llewellyn
Beggar Woman - Rozanna Madylus
French Girl / Strawberry Seller - Emily Vine
French Mother - Katie Stevenson
German Mother - Sally Dodds
Danish Lady / Strolling Player - Julia Sitkovetsky
Russian Nanny - Cathy Bell
Russian Mother / Newspaper Seller - Natalie Montakhab
Hotel Guests, People of Venice, Followers of Dionysus:
Cathy Bell, Rosalind Coad, Rachael Cox, Sally Dodds, Richard Dowling, Llio Evans, Piran Legg, Rhiannon Llewellyn, Rozanna Madylus, Henry Manning, Huw Montague Rendall, Natalie Montakhab, Joseph Padfield, Daniel Rudge, Rose Setten, Julia Sitkovetsky, Katie Stevenson, Pablo Strong, Adam Sullivan, Adam Temple-Smith, Andrew Tipple, Bradley Travis, Emily Vine, James Way
Parsifal James Hurst , Garth Johnson, Alexandre Gilbert, Ygal Jerome Tsur

Elsewhere on this blog:

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