Monday 11 March 2024

Something astonishing: Olivia Fuchs' new production of Britten's Death in Venice for Welsh National Opera involved a collaboration with circus arts, NoFit State

Britten: Death in Venice - Mark Le Brocq, Antony César - Welsh National Opera (Photo Johann Persson)
Britten: Death in Venice - Mark Le Brocq, Antony César
Welsh National Opera (Photo Johann Persson)

Britten: Death in Venice; Mark Le Brocq, Roderick Williams, Alexander Chance, Antony César, Diana Salles, director: Olivia Fuchs, conductor: Leo Hussain; Welsh National Opera in collaboration with NotFit State; Wales Millennium Centre
Reviewed 9 March 2024

Bringing music drama and circus arts together in Britten's last opera to create something unforgettable anchored by Mark Le Brocq's assumption of the title role

Britten's Death in Venice involves the interaction between two worlds, those of Aschenbach and Tadzio, sung music drama and dance. A metaphor for Aschenbach's artistic and personal journey, the exact nature of these two worlds helps govern our perception of whether Aschenbach's relationship with Tazio is entirely in the older man's head or something rooted in reality.

For Olivia Fuchs' new production of Britten's Death in Venice, presented by Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff (seen 9 March 2024), and then on tour, WNO collaborated with circus arts company NoFit State, so that Tadzio and his family were all played by circus artists. Mark Le Brocq was Aschenbach, with Roderick Williams in the baritone roles, Alexander Chance as Apollo, Gareth Brynmor John as the English Clerk, and Peter Van Hulle as the Hotel Porter. The circus artists were Antony César as Tadzio, Diana Salles as the Polish Mother, Vilhelmiina Sinervo and Selma Hellmann as the daughters, and Riccardo Saggese as the Governess and Jaschiu. The remaining roles were taken by two WNO Associate Artists and 19 members of WNO Chorus. The designer was Nicola Turner, the lighting designer was Robbie Butler, and the video designer was Sam Sharples. The circus consultant was Tom Rack, and the circus designer and director was Firenza Guidi, both from NoFit State. The conductor was Leo Hussain

Nicola Turner's set was simple, a basic black space with four pillars used by the circus artists for climbing, but occasionally used by Roderick Williams and Alexander Chance. This was a production that took things upwards. There was a small amount of set dressing, Aschenbach's desk, the hotel lobby, but largely atmosphere came from Sam Sharples' videos, projected onto the rear wall. These were largely evocative details, an oar moving in the water, fragments of Venice, the sea, even a mouth eating a strawberry; they created both setting and atmosphere. Costumes were traditional, early 20th century, and the chorus' physical presence contributed to the look and feel of the ensemble scenes.

Britten: Death in Venice - Antony César, Frederico Saggese - Welsh National Opera (Photo Johann Persson)
Britten: Death in Venice - Antony César, Frederico Saggese - Welsh National Opera (Photo Johann Persson)

The movement, the use of the circus artists, was astonishing. Both in itself and in the way it integrated into the drama. The five circus artists created real characters on stage using both movement and their circus skills. Antony César's skill on aerial straps taking Tadzio high into the air, Diana Salles as the Polish Mother particularly with her tightrope walking, and Riccardo Saggese both as the virile Jaschiu and rocking big hat, long skirt and heels as the governess. Both César and Saggese, as Tadzio and Jaschiu, were clearly fit young men, rather older than the callow boys of the story. This, combined with their physicality, the way César's expressive movement took him way up into the air, clearly indicated the divide between the sung/spoken and the danced. There the two worlds barely touched, Olivia Fuchs to be suggesting that we were seeing Aschenbach's imaginative world, not reality, helped by Anthony César's physical beauty and mesmerising stage presence.

Anchoring this was the heroic performance of Mark Le Brocq as Aschenbach. The role was written for Peter Pears, leaning into the tenor's ability to spin and expressive narrative line based on his supreme accounts of the Evangelist in Bach's passions. And I can testify that Pears was mesmerising as Aschenbach. It is a role that has a lot of talking, largely to us. Mark Le Brocq was powerfully expressive, really taking us into Aschenbach's thought processes and dilemmas. He wasn't the nicest of characters, Le Brocq did not sugar coat it. But he used the combination of music and text brilliantly, and brought a remarkably wide range of expressive colours to the role. Significantly, the ending, when Aschenbach sees Jaschiu kiss Tadzio and the older man tries to reach out to Tadzio before dying, was the only moment the two worlds came physically close.

Roderick Williams was the baritone, demonstrating a remarkable physical virtuosity and creating various characters, the sinister gondolier (and I loved the way that during the production, Aschenbach's gondola journeys moved from the very physical to a simple imaginative idea), the over the top fop who was almost commedia dell'arte, the rather proper hotel manager who managed to make everything he said seem pregnant with meaning, the slimy barber, the vividly projected player with Williams almost unrecognisable in a wig, and the somewhat low key Dionysus. This was not the most sinister performance, yet Williams conveyed the idea of a figure in the background, inexorably manipulating Aschenbach.

Britten: Death in Venice - Alexander Chance, Mark Le Brocq, Roderick Williams - Welsh National Opera (Photo Johann Persson)
Britten: Death in Venice - Alexander Chance, Mark Le Brocq, Roderick Williams - Welsh National Opera (Photo Johann Persson)

Alexander Chance made a hypnotising Apollo, the combination of the lovely clarity of his voice, his height and that gold suit. He was seriously from another world. Gareth Brymor John gave a vivid cameo as the English Clerk, whilst Peter Van Hulle (who sings the role of Aschenbach on 11 May) was the Hotel Porter, dapper and characterful. 

The remaining roles were all well taken, emerging out of the ensemble for their moment and then receding. The chorus was on strong form, on only in terms of the sophisticated malleable choral sound, but in the way they suggested character, whether as hotel guests, beach denizens or threatening inhabitants of Venice.

The city itself was a merest suggestion, perhaps yet another manifestation of Aschenbach's imagination. Yet in the pit, Leo Hussain and the orchestra conjured magical sounds that complemented these wisps and fragments, creating a very real sound world, with a special mention to pianist Stephen Wood for all the expressive recitative.

Britten: Death in Venice -  Mark Le Brocq, Roderick Williams - Welsh National Opera (Photo Johann Persson)
Britten: Death in Venice -  Mark Le Brocq, Roderick Williams - Welsh National Opera (Photo Johann Persson)

Dare we say it, for all its genius status, Britten's Death in Venice can have longeurs. The most successful production I have seen had an added ingredient into the mix. All those years back, the presence of Peter Pears in the title role made the whole mesmerising. At Garsington in 2015, Paul Curran's production added significantly more dance to the mix [see my review], and here, in an astonishing feat, Olivia Fuchs and NoFit State brought music drama and circus arts together to create something unforgettable.

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