Friday 22 November 2019

Death in Venice returns: the Royal Opera's first production in over 25 years of Britten's final opera rightly showcases tenor Mark Padmore's brilliant portrayal of the writer

Britten: Death in Venice,  Tim Mead, Leo Dixon - Royal Opera ((c) ROH 2019 photographed by Catherine Ashmore)
Britten: Death in Venice -  Tim Mead, Leo Dixon - Royal Opera
((c) ROH 2019 photographed by Catherine Ashmore)
Britten Death in Venice; Mark Padmore, Gerald Finley, Tim Mead, Leo Dixon, dir: David McVicar, cond: Richard Farnes; Royal Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 November 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Mark Padmore's intense and febrile portrayal of the moral and physical decline of the elderly write at the centre of this fluent and fluid production

The Royal Opera House's link to Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice goes back to almost the very beginning, though the work has not been a frequent visitor. The English Opera Group's original production of the opera, directed by Colin Graham, with Peter Pears, John Shirley Quirk and James Bowman premiered at Covent Garden in October 1973, just four months after its debut at Snape Maltings. I saw Pears in the role when the production returned in 1978. Then there was a gap until 1992, when Colin Graham directed a production featuring Philip Langridge as Aschenbach, and since then nothing. Until now.

David McVicar's new production of Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice opened at the Royal Opera House on Thursday 21 November 2019. Mark Padmore was Gustav von Aschenbach with Gerald Finley in the seven baritone roles, and Tim Mead as the Voice of Apollo. Leo Dixon was Tadzio, Elizabeth McGorian was the Lady of the Pearls and Olly Bell was Jaschiu. Richard Farnes conducted the Royal Opera House Orchestra. Designs were by Vicki Mortimer, choreography by Lynne Page, and lighting by Paule Constable.

Britten: Death in Venice - Gerald Finley, Mark Padmore - Royal Opera ((c) ROH 2019 photographed by Catherine Ashmore)*
Britten: Death in Venice - Gerald Finley, Mark Padmore 
Royal Opera ((c) ROH 2019 photographed by Catherine Ashmore)
I have to confess that I am starting to prefer the intimacy gained by performing Death in Venice in smaller theatres; it was, after all, written for Snape Maltings. David McVicar and Vicki Mortimer very much brought out the monumentality of the setting, with Mortimer's flexible set, consisting of an array of arches and columns, really evoking the grandeur of the Edwardian Grand Hotel. We never see Venice, it is evoked in fragments, arches and gondolas. The back-drop was often dark, a black background against which Padmore's febrile von Aschenbach really stood out. When the stage did open up, it was to reveal a glorious view of the sea.

There are two aspects to the opera which still challenge directors, the homosexual attraction between von Aschenbach and Tadzio, and the dance element. Of course, the opera is about far more than an old Queen being attracted to a young boy, that is part of its fascination, but you sense that some directors are happy to minimise the real erotic thrill that von Aschenbach gets from looking at Tadzio (and that similarly Tadzio gets from being looked at). And similarly in the dance sequences, there was a period when directors went through a phase of trying to minimise the dance element. By contrast, one of the finest productions I have seen in recent years was Paul Curran's at Garsington in 2015 [see my review], where Curran deliberately emphasised the role of both these elements whilst not minimising the work's other aspects and seemed to achieve a far stronger balance more striking vision of the opera. Of course, it helped that Garsington's theatre has a fine intimacy to it.

David McVicar seems to have trodden the middle way.
Leo Dixon was attractive and seductive in a youthful and seemingly unconscious way, but for Padmore's von Aschenbach the attraction seemed less a physical thing than an intensely personal and interior manifestation, an exemplar of his general breakdown. Similarly, Lynne Page's choreography was fully present and expressed, but it broke no new ground and was discreetly traditional. Only occasionally, when Leo Dixon (a First Artist with the Royal Ballet) had solos did the movement come alive, and the final moments with Dixon alone centre stage were magical.

Britten: Death in Venice - Mark Padmore - Royal Opera ((c) ROH 2019 photographed by Catherine Ashmore)*
Britten: Death in Venice - Mark Padmore - Royal Opera
((c) ROH 2019 photographed by Catherine Ashmore)
The staging relied on occasional props and the ensemble of 24 named characters, plus 15 dancers and actors, to create the settings, with the ensemble fully populating the Venice of McVicar's imagination with striking Edwardian characters. The Royal Opera Chorus was either banished to the wings or, during the Act One games, to the sides of the auditorium.

Mark Padmore was mesmerising as von Aschenbach, rightly dominating the proceedings and spending a lot of time downstage, maximising his communication with the audience. Padmore really brought out the detail of von Aschenbach's mental decline, full delineating everything in Britten's score and using the range of colours in his voice to remarkable effect. His von Aschenbach was very much the loner, rather intense and febrile. It was a very intimate portrait, and ultimately rather devastating. And Padmore's diction was exemplary, really showing how it could be done. Von Aschenbach is a monumental role, and whoever sings it, the role remains a tour de force, here Padmore made it very personal, almost frank, and profoundly moving.

Gerald Finley clearly had great fun in the seven baritone roles, bringing out the strongly different characters so that his Elderly Fop was very much an extreme caricature (but then Britten's writing at this point veers in this direction too), whilst the Gondolier was slightly sinister, and the Hotel Manager suitably oily. The Leader of the Players came complete as a mock dwarf! It was a performance which brought out the element of comedy in the part, which can be a relief in this opera, but what I also missed was the sense of a common sinister thread running through the roles. That said, Finley's was a most musical and brilliant portrayal, using his voice in a remarkable variety of ways.

Tim Mead was poised and clear as the Voice of Apollo, here physically present so that he was not so otherworldly as in some productions, and the dialogue with Dionysius was a very physical one rather than conceptual.

Britten: Death in Venice - Leo Dixon - Royal Opera ((c) ROH 2019 photographed by Catherine Ashmore)
Britten: Death in Venice - Leo Dixon - Royal Opera
((c) ROH 2019 photographed by Catherine Ashmore)
The boys' games in Act One were just that, boys' games albeit slightly stylised and the dance ensemble included not just young male dancers but boy dancers too (from the Tring Park School for the Performing Arts and Sylvia Young Theatre School). There was little or no sense of otherness about the scene, we were still firmly on the Venice Lido, and Padmore's von Aschenbach wandered through the games, watching and participating. The only time that the production left the naturalistic was in the scene with the dialogue between Apollo and Dionysius, when we had a febrile, almost orgiastic scene and Leo Dixon's semi-naked Tadzio appeared in von Aschenbach's bed! But again, this fitted with the production's theme, as it could all be said to be in the writer's mind.

The ensemble of singers was strongly cast, mixing experienced singers with younger ones including the current crop of Jette Parker Young Artists, plus Adriana Forbes-Dorant, from Streatham & Clapham High School, who sang the French Girl. Each had their moment, but all were present as the general melee of people around the central character. It seems unfair to highlight individuals when in fact it was the ensemble which was important, but Rebecca Evans' was a poignant Strawberry Seller whilst Dominic Sedgwick was a strong English Clerk. Michael Mofidian seemed to pop up in a number of roles, and Colin Judson was a fine Hotel Porter making a neat foil to Gerald Finley's Hotel Manager.

Britten: Death in Venice - Gerald Finley and the players - Royal Opera ((c) ROH 2019 photographed by Catherine Ashmore)7
Britten: Death in Venice - Gerald Finley and the players - Royal Opera
((c) ROH 2019 photographed by Catherine Ashmore)
In the pit, Richard Farnes brought out the exoticism and otherness of Britten's score with its use of tuned percussion and the gamelan-like textures. Whilst McVicar's production needed a frequent use of a drop curtain to allow it to flow, this was more than compensated for by the brilliance and seductiveness of the musical interludes, where Farnes carefully balanced the elements of sinister threat and dissolution.

Whilst Mark Padmore was, rightly, very much the focus of this evening he was surrounded by a strong ensemble and a very fluent, fluid production. We must hope that the Royal Opera breaks its record (the 1992 production was never revived) and that this production returns.

Britten: Death in Venice - Mark Padmore, Gerald Finley - Royal Opera  ((c) ROH 2019 photographed by Catherine Ashmore)
Britten: Death in Venice
Mark Padmore, Gerald Finley - Royal Opera 
((c) ROH 2019 photographed by Catherine Ashmore)
Benjamin Britten: Death in Venice
Royal Opera House
Conductor: Richard Farnes
Director: David McVicar
Choreographer: Lynne Page
Designer: Vicki Mortimer
Lighting Designer: Paule Constable
Associate Director: Leah Hausman
Associate Choreographer: Gareth Mole

Gustav von Aschenbach: Mark Padmore
Traveller: Gerald Finley
Old Gondolier: Gerald Finley
Hotel Manager: Gerald Finley
Elderly Fop: Gerald Finley
Hotel Barber: Gerald Finley
Leader of the Players: Gerald Finley
Voice of Dionysus: Gerald Finley
Voice of Apollo: Tim Mead
Tadzio: Leo Dixon
Lady of the Pearls: Elizabeth McGorian
Jaschiu: Olly Bell
Strawberry Seller: Rebecca Evans
Lace Seller: Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha
Danish Lady: Elizabeth Weisberg
English Lady: Katy Batho
Russian Nanny: Rosie Aldridge
German Mother: Hanna Hipp
Russian Spinster: Amanda Baldwin
French Mother: Rebecca Lodge Birkebaek
Hotel Porter: Colin Judson
Boy Player: Andrew Tortise
Glass Maker: Sam Furness
Steward: Andrew O'Connor
English Clerk: Dominic Sedgwick
German Father: Michael Mofidian
Lido Boatman: ByeongMin Gil
Russian Father: Dominic Barrand

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