A NOT so summery late afternoon at Wormsley, with grey clouds gathering unsettlingly in the distance,
A NOT so summery late afternoon at Wormsley, with grey clouds gathering unsettlingly in the distance, was as nothing compared with the extreme discomfiture of writer Gustav von Aschenbach, who, seeking inspiration in the sunny south, falls prey to the fetid sickliness of midsummer Venice and a fatal attraction to the young Polish boy Tadzio.
Such is the theme of Death in Venice, Thomas Mann’s novella, which Benjamin Britten captures so poignantly in his opera.
First-night expectations at Garsington were high, especially given the presence on the podium of Steuart Bedford, who conducted the very first performance in 1973 after a lifelong association with Britten.
The production also benefited from the experience of Paul Curran, veteran director of Britten operas, and his deep acquaintance with Thomas Mann’s novella.
The third success factor was the introduction of dance, with choreography provided by Andreas Heise. It sounds, and was, riveting. Tenor Paul Nilon as Aschenbach held centre-stage in a tour de force of memory and pitch, ably supported by baritone William Dazeley in several different roles.
Aschenbach’s gradual fall from grace was presaged constantly as he encountered one symbol of decadence after another — each introduced with consummate timing.
The costumes were totally in keeping with the period, while Kevin Knight’s set design, with lighting by Bruno Poet, was simplistically brilliant, whether as the deck of a boat transporting Aschenbach to Venice, the piazza, or the lido where Aschenbach first spies Tadzio.
And the use of huge stage-wide net curtains was a master stroke, enabling dreams, the subconscious and the fantastic to be depicted incredibly effectively — as well as representing the water around the gondolier.
Everything mirrors the intense symbolism that pervades the plot. The arcane weirdness and inevitability of the unfolding tragedy is further accentuated by Britten’s novel orchestration, including five percussion and three unusual orchestral instruments — xylophone, vibraphone and glockenspiel — all used to great effect to create an ominously dark texture.
Heise’s dance routines were both spectacular and often unashamedly erotic, and the audience loved them.
As Paul Curran explains: “The boy never speaks. How do you represent that on stage? The use of dance is genius, but it is also quite obvious, because it becomes a much more sensual and erotic experience for Aschenbach to be both attracted to and distanced from... there’s always this separation, and that distance is fascinating.”