Death in Venice

Britten
Death in Venice [concert performance]

Gustav von Aschenbach – Philip Langridge
Traveller / Elderly Fop / Old Gondolier / Hotel Manager / Hotel Barber / Leader of the Players / Voice of Dionysus – Alan Opie
Voice of Apollo – William Towers

Kenneth Richardson – director

Philharmonia Voices

Philharmonia Orchestra
Richard Hickox


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 23 November, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Final operas often occupy a special place in composers’ outputs – whether effecting a synthesis of previous concerns (Wagner’s “Parsifal”), or going off at a tangent to what went before (Verdi’s “Falstaff”). “If Death in Venice” comes in the former category, its unequivocal directness of scenario and music is itself unprecedented within Benjamin Britten’s operatic oeuvre – to the extent that it brooks no interpretative or evaluative half-measures. Easy to understand why the composer, as he neared its completion in early 1973, wrote it was either the bravest or the most foolhardy project he had ever undertaken.

An opera, moreover, that feels (like “Parsifal”) positively written-in to the creative environment which saw its premiere – making it some while before it could take on a life of its own outside of Aldeburgh. Written expressly for Peter Pears, the principal role has since been taken on successfully by several other British singers, not least Robert Tear, while Ian Bostridge is due to take on the part at English National Opera next spring. For some years, however, it has been evident that Philip Langridge’s portrayal of Gustav von Aschenbach was special: his recent Chandos recording amply confirmed this, so making his participation in this first of two concert performances with the Philharmonia Orchestra something to anticipate.

As if furthering its tendency to extremes, “Death in Venice” succeeds in concert as surely as it fails. That there is no provision for the important choreographed episodes on the Lido means that Tadzio not only remains unheard but unseen (for all that the percussionists nearly make amends): a spectral presence who might be a figment of Aschenbach’s imagination. Nor is there opportunity to underline his isolation though stage-sets that, whether or not they actually evoke Venice, convey the sense ofevents closing-in on the hapless novelist: a claustrophobia of environment to mirror that of the mind. Conversely, the stripping-away of an external setting accords well with a concept that remorselessly homes-in on Aschenbach’s predicament – with the multi-role part of the baritone becoming akin to an alter-ego who goads the main character along the path to a fulfilment that is also his destruction.

Other than this, Kenneth Richardson has done well in utilising the Queen Elizabeth Hall such that it becomes a natural extension of the platform. The placing of the Voice of Apollo high up at the rear of the auditorium makes for a spatial dimension topped only by the emergence of Apollo and Dionysus at either end of the central gangway – a dramatic conflict here brought off with irresistible theatrical immediacy. The smaller roles – emerging out of and back into the chorus either at the front, or in front of the platform itself – are given enough personality to explain why such brief encounters should have the bearing that they do on the scenario, while the low-level lighting creates suspense without seeming a mere conceit. Surtitles were not provided, but the sheer clarity of Britten’s vocal writing and the general excellence of the singers’ diction would anyway have rendered them superfluous; and it can be no bad thing if some of the more twee excesses of Myfanwy Piper’s libretto go unheeded.

Vocally, the cast was a strong one. In just two years, Philharmonia Voices has established itself as a force to be reckoned with, and its cohesion as an ensemble (ably directed on occasion by Aidan Oliver) was matched by the quality of the individual singers who took on those lesser roles – notably Nicholas Sharatt’s put-upon Hotel Porter, Elin Manahan Thomas’s plaintive Strawberry Seller – above all, Edward Price as the Young English Clerk who earnestly beseeches Aschenbach to quit a plague-ridden Venice before the blockade takes effect.

Equally impressive is Alan Opie in capturing the related qualities of his contrasting roles: the surly Traveller; an Elderly Fop who has become a parody of himself; an Old Gondolier of ominous import; a Hotel Manager as gushing as he is insincere; a Hotel Barber cringing in his disingenuous manner; a Leader of the Players who relishes his craft (and Britten’s rhythmic game-playing with the chorus); and a Voice of Dionysus who imperiously urges Aschenbach on towards his destiny.

William Towers’s strong and alluring countertenor is tellingly employed as Apollo, and it is no fault of his that the climactic scene in Act One is made to seem more staid and effortful than it in fact is.

Any performance of “Death in Venice” stands or falls, of course, by its Aschenbach – and there can be little doubt that Philip Langridge’s is the most comprehensive and penetrating assumption of the role there has yet been. Essentially, it comes down to making the part sympathetic in the most human sense – conveying its restlessness, vacillation and frequent desperation such that time and place are made relative to the universal qualities that make this a (no doubt intended) summation, musically and conceptually, of Britten’s leading roles. The frequent passages of recitative-with-piano are deftlyrendered as ongoing revelation of character, with the lyricism and expressive force evinced a tribute to the stamina that Langridge can summon – this far into his career – for what is among the most demanding of tenor roles. Put another way – one lives the part of Aschenbach with Langridge, feeling a consequent sense of loss when he expires some 150 minutes after having commenced the opera.

Currently in the process of recording all Britten’s operas, Richard Hickox conducts with a generally sure sense of dramatic pacing – vital in a work whose frequent recourse to something approaching monodrama can easily lose impetus. This only really happens in the last scene of Act One, when the call-and-response between Apollo and chorus exhibits a rhythmic stiffness that gives it a formulaic quality at odds with the music’s cumulative flow. Otherwise, Hickox is securely in control of dramatic momentum, and obtains a response from the Philharmonia that – some unsteadiness in the strings apart – serves the opera well.

A performance, then, that does justice to the confessional essence of Britten’s operatic swansong. Those unable to attend should need no prompting to do so for the second performance.

  • Second performance on 25 November
  • Philharmonia Orchestra
  • Philharmonia Orchestra information:
    Freephone 0800 652 6717

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