Monday, 7 December 2015

Britten - Death in Venice (Teatro Real, 2014 - Webcast)

Benjamin Britten - Death in Venice

Teatro Real, Madrid - 2014

Alejo Pérez, Willy Decker, John Daszak, Leigh Melrose, Tomasz Borczyk, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Duncan Rock, Itxaro Mentxaka, Vicente Ombuena, Antonio Lozano, Damián del Castillo, Nuria García Arrés, Ruth Iniesta

Culturebox - December 2014

While on the surface Death in Venice is about much more than an old man's attraction to a boy's youth and beauty, it is the key to the essential conflict that the aging writer Gustav von Aschenbach struggles with on so many levels. In Death in Venice, the struggle extends to old age meeting youth, beauty confronted by ugliness, art versus mediocrity, fame or obscurity, control over submission and ultimately, of course, life versus death. Venice, a city of contrasts, embodies all of von Aschenbach's fears; a place of incredible beauty and allure that is fading and slowly crumbling into the sea, succumbing inevitably to the forces of nature.

Accordingly, most productions of Britten's Death in Venice tend to emphasise the beauty of Venice (I don't believe you can exaggerate it) without however really considering its dark corrupting side. Like Deborah Warner's acclaimed and successful production for the English National Opera, Willy Decker's production for the Teatro Real in Madrid is visually magnificent, but its clean modern minimalist designs don't seem to be the most natural way of probing beneath the surface to explore the slow decline of Venice alongside that of von Aschenbach, something that the writer seems to anticipate on his way there. 'Ah Serenissima!' '...where water is married to stone', 'what lies in wait for me here, ambiguous Venice?'

As with Warner's production, there are other less obvious ways to create the sense of unease that is evoked in the imagery of the libretto - Aschenbach's journey on a gondola to the Lido compared to crossing the Styx in a black coffin - and in Britten's music. Without intending to be disparaging, since it proves to be largely effective, what Willy Decker brings to the work is a sense of camp, where Aschenbach's desire to hold onto his dignity and reputation is in sharp contrast to the common and vulgar displays he encounters in the city. The first encounter is the most ominous; a kiss planted on him by an old traveller fooling around and having fun, made up to look younger than he really is.

There has to be an attraction there too however and this lively scene along with the handsome costume and set design of the production, can be seen to exert a strong first impression on von Aschenbach as he begins a journey of no return. A seductive rather than a stuffy elegance would be a better way to describe the tone of Decker's production designs. There's a blending of period costumes - the white linen suits and dressed of the holiday makers iconically familiar from Visconti's movie version of Mann's novella - mixed here with immaculate, shiny, minimalist location settings, that does succeed in establishing the kind of contrast and ambiguity that Venice in the opera represents.

That gives the work a freshness here, avoiding cliché or simple representation, while still adhering to the intent of the libretto. "There's a dark side even to perfection", von Aschenbach observes, and he notes the clever thought down in his notebook, always seeking to rationalise instead of feel. But there's an attractive allure to this dark side that the Madrid production captures well, the ornate classical mixing with the clean unadorned modernism, with just a hint of the exotic that is there also in Britten's score. These elements sit a little uneasily side-by-side but, particularly in the way that they are captured in Decker's production, they can also be complementary.

If the production looks terrific and works well enough with the material, it plays a little safe and doesn't entirely manage to achieve the desired impact by the end. Tadzio, for example, is well-characterised as if he could just be an ordinary boy, not one who is flirting on some level with von Aschenbach. The attraction and objectification is entirely on the part of the writer and his imagination, even if his being observed doesn't escape the boy's notice. This is always likely to be the case, but unless you see Tadzio the way Aschenbach does, it's a little harder to 'sympathise' with the confusion that this personification of classical beauty exerts upon him.

There are some good directorial touches that attempt to make this relationship explicit. The playfully dropped red ball is a good visual image for the connection between them, the dancing and choreography kept simplified and expressive, and there's a Punch and Judy show that does give some indication of the state of mind of von Aschenbach in his obsession. The singing is also exceptionally good from John Daszak in the principal role - one that has to be to really carry the work - with good support from Leigh Melrose as the traveller and the other minor parts, but there is never any real sense of how the sequence of events leads to any noticeable decline in Aschenbach.  The musical interpretation conducted by Alejo Pérez doesn't really manage to get the essence of this across either.

Links: Culturebox, Teatro Real