Death in Venice
Graham-Hall, Mead, Shore; Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera, Gardner. Production: Warner. Opus Arte OA 1130D, 153 mins., subtitled
Operagoers in America have had a difficult time getting a fair look at the work of director Deborah Warner. This ENO Death in Venice was expected at New York City Opera at one point but failed to materialize. Her Eugene Onegin did come to the Met last season, but illness prevented Warner from putting the finishing touches on the first run. Seen on DVD, the Britten production is often notable for Warner's high degree of fidelity to the stage directions in Myfanwy Piper's libretto, and for the way in which she has collaborated with designer Tom Pye to achieve the many changes of scene not only in a fluid manner but in character with the music. (These things are, of course, unusual in our day.) Her interventions mostly involve the singer playing the roles of Ashenbach's nemeses; Warner wants to give the audience clear hints that these roles are related. Props — the elderly fop's cane, the leading player's concertina — are used in the same lascivious way. Following the singer's last incarnation, as Dionysus, he quickly reverts to three of his earlier personas. Britten's music offers plenty of clues of its own, but Warner does no harm. Less successful is her decision to make Apollo an onstage character rather than a disembodied voice. Tim Mead's imperial, commanding singing is lessened by the staging.
The opera isn't ideal for large houses, but this is skillfully disguised. (Aschenbach is often seated on the very lip of the stage, with a silhouetted gondolier behind him.) Warner has invented one questionable episode, but her actors make a case for the idea. Instead of having Aschenbach stand silently outside Tadzio's hotel room, Warner shows Tadzio nodding off in a nap. He inadvertently drops a rubber ball, which Aschenbach warily returns, something he surely would not have dared to do. But Sam Zaldivar, piquantly poised between boy and man, is perfect casting as Tadzio, and he also executes Kim Brandstrup's choreography, which moves plausibly between quasi-naturalistic games and real dance, with aplomb.
Aschenbachs have been younger lately — Peter Pears was a few days shy of his sixty-third birthday when he created the role, but this was never intended to be a model — and here John Graham-Hall fits the trend. There is a huge amount of singing in the role, often well done, but his portrayals of intoxication and excitement sometimes sound unwontedly angry. In Warner's conception, he is overtly unhinged quite early on and is plainly a goner by the scene of the strolling players. Andrew Shore throws himself into his six roles, with a voice thinner than we are accustomed to, but with command of the stage. Late in the show comes the finest singing, in the person of Marcus Farnsworth's English travel clerk. Many people consider Death in Venice to be no more than a curate's egg. If this is ever to change, Edward Gardner's conducting — which beautifully sets out the vibraphone at Tadzio's entrance, gives a sense of Venice gradually turning repellent and oppressive, offers a stunned silence before the buildup to Aschenbach's final line in Act I and paints the scene at St. Mark's as something related to Aschenbach's tightening fixation rather than something picturesque — might lead the way.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN
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