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Death in Venice

Garsington Festival

In Review Garsington Death in Venice hdl 915
Dazeley and Nilon, Garsington Festival’s Traveller and Aschenbach
© Clive Barda

BACK IN 1973, when Death in Venice was due to have its premiere at Aldeburgh, Benjamin Britten was already suffering from the heart disease that would kill him three years later, so the duty of taking over the opera’s first performances was passed to his close musical associate Steuart Bedford. 

Forty-two years later, Bedford — now seventy-five — once again took up his baton to present the final stage masterpiece of England’s greatest opera composer, this time at the Garsington Festival (which these days takes place at Wormsley, in Buckinghamshire), where it was presented for the first time on June 21.

A specialist in Britten’s music, Bedford drew subtle and refined sounds from the Garsington Opera Orchestra — an ensemble reassembled annually to accompany the festival’s performances. The orchestra has recently reached new heights under the music directorship of Douglas Boyd, who this season took charge of Così Fan Tutte and a staging of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream with the complete incidental music by Mendelssohn. Bedford’s heightened and infallible sense of the music’s mood and momentum created out of the orchestral score the strongest possible foundation for the vocal writing and the staging.

The production was in the hands of Paul Curran, working with designer Kevin Knight and choreographer Andreas Heise. The latter’s function in this work is, of course, unusually important: Britten cast the roles of the beautiful youth Tadzio, his mother and his friend Jaschiu — indeed of the entire Polish entourage — as dancers, to delineate their separation from the isolated Aschenbach, who discovers at the crunch that he cannot even bring himself to speak to them. (Due to this original idea, Death in Venice might almost be viewed as an opera-ballet.)

Heise’s choreography was appropriately fluid and expressive, matching perfectly the gamelan-rich textures of the score at those points where the balletic element is crucial and discovering a fine balance between lively physicality and subtle sensuality in its realization. Perfectly delivered were Celestin Boutin’s Tadzio, Nina Goldman’s Polish Mother and Chris Agius Darmanin’s Jaschiu, among others.

Curran and Knight, meanwhile, conjured up the innumerable small scenes that make up the opera’s visual trajectory with considerable discernment and imagination, often using simple white curtains to hide, then reveal the interiors and exteriors of Venice, in particular, to magical effect. Curran’s directorial skills were apparent, too, in the achievement of tenor Paul Nilon in the leading role of the self-tormented writer Gustav von Aschenbach, who is onstage for a vast proportion of the evening. In itself, Nilon’s voice is not capable of a wide range of coloristic nuance. Here, however, his physical acting and in particular his distinctive use of text (a good deal of the writing originally created for the aging Peter Pears is essentially a kind of parlando) more than made up for any vocal sameness; he has surely done nothing finer over the long course of his career.

Equally good were the seven small roles designed for a single baritone — the Traveller, the Elderly Fop, the Old Gondolier, the Hotel Manager and so on — all of them undertaken with skill and intelligence here by William Dazeley, who had no difficulties in managing the requisite quick changes — physical, psychological and vocal. 

In the third crucial vocal role, that of Apollo (in the score termed the Voice of Apollo; Britten did not intend that either he or his opponent Dionysus should be seen onstage, as they were here), countertenor Tom Verney displayed a voice of aptly unearthly beauty. A triumph for Garsington, the production also turned out to be a highlight of the English festival season as a whole. —George Hall 

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