Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Britten - Death in Venice

Benjamin Britten - Death in Venice

English National Opera, 2013

Edward Gardner, Deborah Warner, John Graham-Hall, Andrew Shore, Tim Mead, Laura Caldow, Sam Zaldivar, Joyce Henderson, Marcio Teixeira, Peter van Hulle, Anna Dennis

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Thomas Mann's 'Death in Venice' would have been a work that chimed with Benjamin Britten's sensibility on a number of levels.  It deals with several recurring subjects - children, innocence, death and corruption - that can be found in the composer's most famous works. If Britten's final opera has however never achieved the same recognition or popularity as his masterful treatment of those themes in Peter Grimes and The Turn of the Screw, it's probably less to do with the strength of the musical composition itself - which is among Britten's most adventurous and powerful - as much as the difficulty of presenting the awkward subject matter and the dark undercurrents found in Mann's short novella in an accessible way to a modern audience.

On a personal level, Death in Venice deals with some less comfortable private matters that Britten himself struggled with in regards to his homosexuality and his attraction to young boys. Perhaps more significantly, or at least deeply connected to these issues, the work also deals with the question of the nature of the artist in the later stages of his life. In the figure of writer Gustav von Aschenbach, Britten would surely have recognised the nature of the artist's struggles with his darker impulses, the line between maintaining order and finding freedom of expression, the need to keep some matters private and make other personal observations public, the recognition of what is an elevated thought and what is derived from a basic urge. All the while Britten, like Aschenbach, has to deal with ordinary human struggles with illness, age, and with the fear of being isolated or set apart from other people.

Thomas Mann's extraordinarily rich work then is fully comprehended by Britten and brought across into musical terms with remarkable facility and precision. The libretto, by Myfanwy Piper, captures the detail and essence of the work while Britten's music makes it come alive and feel real, allowing us to sympathise with the elderly writer's queasy fascination for a beautiful young boy observed on the Lido beach in Venice. The attraction is more than just lustful, but is inspired by the love of youth itself. As a writer, Aschenbach recognises however that there is something of a self-destructive urge in his abandoning himself to the passions stirred up by the Polish boy, Tadzio, whom he observes playing with his brothers and sister, but never actually approaches.

Already on his way to his hotel in Venice through an encounter with Apollo and Dionysus and in his crossing the Styx on a "coffin black" gondola, the elderly writer already has an awareness that his travelling entails a certain amount of self-exploration, a "sudden desire for the unknown" that involves breaking down his formerly rigid position on simplicity of beauty and form. Ordered, stylised and measured, he feels the need to give himself up to something freer, something closer to purity and perfection that can only be achieved through a recognition of the darker side of perfection. "To exist in it and of it", to live it and make it more than merely words on a page.

Such self-knowledge however only comes in old age from the experience of a life lived, and that there is a bitter cruelty or irony when this is confronted with the beauty and perfection of blithely ignorant youth. In youth there is everything that one aspires to enjoy, but the knowledge only comes when one has lost it and can never regain it. There's a fatal attraction then in what this old man feels for the young boy, a idealised desire to possess what one cannot have, a sincere wish to see this wonder of youth and beauty elevated and worshipped, but also a horror at the possibility of his own corruption, sickness and old age corrupting it.

Words can only take this description of Aschenbach's sentiments so far, and Piper's libretto achieves this extremely well, but Britten's extraordinary music takes our understanding for it much further and allows those other unspoken and undignified sentiments to be expressed. Most obviously there are Eastern references in the music and the instrumentation that speak of the Sirocco conflating it with Aschenbach's old age, sickness and corruption, but the musical language and small-scale, chamber-like structure finds other unconventional means of expression, including a counter-tenor to sing Apollo and using a dancer instead of a singer for Tadzio.

Small-scale and intimate it may be, but the sweep of the ideas expounded requires a much bigger canvas, and that presents certain challenges for the theatrical presentation of the work.  Deborah Warner's critically acclaimed production for the English National Opera with Tom Pye's inventive set designs achieve that quite brilliantly. There's an openness and simplicity to the designs that works with the text of the libretto without over-illustrating it, creating the mood and atmosphere of Venice through the use of colour, light and silhouettes with imagery suggesting water and skies. It looks ravishingly beautiful as well as suggesting an openness of scale. The space also allows room for the ballet dancers to express all that youthful freedom and ambiguity that is contained within the figure of Tadzio, or projected upon him by Aschenbach.

A lot then evidently rests on this first-person perspective of Aschenbach and it could hardly be better expressed than John Graham-Hall's performance here. Seen recently on DVD in a vivid and fearless performance of Britten's Peter Grimes, Graham-Hall's light tenor, beautiful in timbre and enunciation, is also perfectly suited to the character of Gustav von Aschenbach. In an interview made during the live television broadcast of this performance, the singer stated that despite the challenges of being the centre of the entire work and singing on-stage for a large part of the opera, the quality of Britten's writing makes the performance easy. He may be right, but there's more to it than he modestly suggests. It's a role that requires commitment and sensitivity to the variations of tone in Aschenbach's descent from order to chaos, and Graham-Hall's demeanour from sophisticated traveller to crumpled madman is perfectly judged and delicately phrased throughout.

English National Opera have really only recently embraced the idea of filming, broadcasting and releasing productions for the cinema and DVD, and if this production is anything to go by, we've a lot to look forward to in future projects. On Blu-ray this looks and sounds outstanding. The image quality is crisp and captures this magnificent, colourful production of Death in Venice beautifully. It might be a little to clinically perfect for some even. The audio tracks are also impressive, both LPCM 2.0 and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 crystal clear, revealing all the detail of Britten's unconventional instrumentation. You can hear every single instrument and note in the superbly balanced mix and the quality and clarity of the singing. There are no extra features on the disc other than a Cast Gallery, but the booklet contains an essay and an outline synopsis of the 17 scenes. Subtitles are English, French, German and Korean only.