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BRITTEN: Death in Venice

spacer Martin, S. Hendricks, Riga; Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro La Fenice, Bartoletti. Production: Pizzi. Dynamic 55608 
(Blu-ray), 155 mins., subtitled


Here's a milestone for Britten's Death in Venice  — its premiere production in its title city. It was Venice, of course, that inspired Thomas Mann's classic novella; six decades later, it was more the Mann than the place that inspired Britten.

I freely confess that I've never much liked his opera, which seems to me arid and overcerebral in the manner of so much latter-year Britten. (Give me Paul Bunyan any day.) From the start, he faced a massive obstacle in Myfanwy Piper's prolix, pretentious libretto, which substitutes for Mann's matter-of-fact third-person eloquence an incessant, and ultimately exhausting, self-analytical monologue that makes Parsifal's Gurnemanz seem taciturn by comparison. Over and over Piper's lines leave me groaning. "Yes, Aschenbach, you have grown reserved, self-sufficient — since the death of a wife and the marriage of an only daughter — dependent not upon human relationships but upon work": such lead-footed exposition would have earned her at best a D-minus in Playwriting 101. Britten's music rises to its best level only when his Piper pipes down — in the instrumental interludes; in the dance music; in the hushed, haunting offstage choral interjections that punctuate the score. 

All that said, I enjoyed this Venetian Death from June 2008 more than I've ever enjoyed the opera before. Part of my pleasure came from the fact that (forgive the pun) it takes the Brit out of Britten. We're conditioned to Aschenbachs with British accents — not just Peter Pears and his many successors but, thanks to Visconti's film (which, in 1971, preceded the opera by two years), Dirk Bogarde in the director's Mann-as-Mahler conceit. The two leads here are American and make no attempt to speak the queen's English; the designer/director, conductor, orchestra, chorus and nearly all the supporting singers are Italian. Maybe it's just my perception, but this Death in Venice seems to flow with warmer waters than Suffolk's. 

Pier Luigi Pizzi's production (first seen in Genoa in 1999) looks as good as you'd expect from this Italian master: his designs are handsomely clear, clean-lined and fluid, with black and white and gray and the palest blue creating a subtly surreal effect. So is his direction: stylized for everyone but Aschenbach, the action unfolds like an unsettling, mountingly intense fever dream. And Gheorghe Iancu's choreography works as its intimate partner, inventive and expressive in the formal dance sequences and, with the choristers relegated to the orchestra pit, an ever-ready source of vivid movement for the dancer/mimes who take their place. 

Marlin Miller — looking younger and more corn-fed than the average Aschenbach — may initially disconcert the viewer with his forthright manner and un-Pearsian tones, but he quickly had me under his spell; he's a natural, unforced actor and a strong presence, and his articulation of the text is remarkably clear. I very much liked Scott Hendricks as well, in his multiple nemesis roles (with no attempt made to disguise him from one to the next). His burly, Verdian voice works well with his quite literally hands-on physicality. He, too, is easily understandable, as is the chorus. Alessandro Riga is a beautiful man, and he dances beautifully, but he effortlessly illustrates another of the opera's problems: Tadzio is a "half-man," still a boy, and much of the point of Aschenbach's obsession — not to mention Britten's — is lost when he's embodied by a muscular, fully developed dancer. Bruno Bartoletti, his head in the score, does full justice to Britten's characteristic sound world; this is a fine memorial to a beloved musician. And the spacious sonics are strikingly good. spacer


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