Death in Venice

Britten
Death in Venice (concert performance)

Gustav von Aschenbach – Philip Langridge
The Traveller, Elderly Fop, Old Gondolier, Hotel Manager, Hotel Barber, Leader of the Players, Voice of Dionysus – Alan Opie
Voice of Apollo – Michael Chance

BBC Singers

City of London Sinfonia
Richard Hickox


Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 30 June, 2004
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

“Ben is writing an evil opera, and it’s killing him.” This disturbing remark is reported to have been made by Peter Pears – the creator of the role of Aschenbach and dedicatee of the opera – during the time that Britten was at work on what proved to be his last work for the stage.

There is no doubt that Britten was in precarious health during the early 1970s, but was determined to finish the opera. Shortly after its completion, he underwent heart surgery from which, alas, he never fully recovered.

Whatever the personal circumstances of the composer, in terms of both physical and mental well-being, this welcome performance confirmed that he was writing at the very summit of his creative powers. The invention and power of the score is simply astonishing, and seems to incorporate – and reflect – all Britten’s experience and pre-occupations both musically and philosophically.

It is all too easy to read an autobiographical element into the character of Aschenbach and his fateful – and, ultimately, fatal – encounter with a young boy in Venice, his growing obsession and, perhaps, consequent self-loathing.

Of greater interest are the many philosophical musings in which Aschenbach reflects on the creative process and the place of the artist in society. “I turned away from the paradox and daring of my youth, renounced bohemianism and sympathy with the outcast soul, to concentrate upon simplicity, beauty, form – upon these all my art is built,” decrees Aschenbach shortly after his arrival in Venice. Apart from the reference to “sympathy with the outcast soul,” the remainder of this statement might perfectly reflect Britten’s approach to life and art. But the “outcast soul” of Aschenbach is the last of such dramatic figures that populate the rich corpus of Britten’s operatic work. In this part, Britten – and not forgetting the generally superb libretto of Myfanwy Piper – created one of the most intense and fully drawn characters in the whole operatic repertoire. Its inspirer, Peter Pears, needless to say, gave the definitive early performances and, literally, was a hard act to follow. His interpretation is fortunately preserved on Decca conducted by Steuart Bedford.

In Philip Langridge, Pears has a worthy successor. He achieves the well-nigh insurmountable task of making the part of Aschenbach his own. No-one who has heard Pears can forget that unique and inimitable timbre, but by eschewing attempts at imitation – a regrettable failing of some who undertake parts Britten wrote for Pears – and delivering the music with his own artistry, Langridge creates a completely convincing portrait of this troubled man.

From the opening thoughts “My mind beats on” – where words, image and music are perfectly welded through the latter’s pulsing graphically suggesting on-going thought processes – through the many reflections on the turn of events, to the conclusion, Philip Langridge conveyed the myriad aspects of this tortured soul. Whilst one or two moments especially stand out – not least Aschenbach’s penultimate cry of “Ah, no!” which was like that of a wounded animal – the consistency of Langridge’s portrayal is what impressed the most. The recitatives (unfortunately described in the programme note as “similar to the Sprechgesang invented by Schoenberg”, to which they bear little, if any, resemblance) in which Aschenbach articulates his thoughts, were never in any danger of sounding dry or holding up the action, thanks to the singer’s responsiveness to the text and the sympathetic and attentive piano accompaniment played by Ian Watson.

The programme note, again unhelpfully, advised that “Aschenbach is the only major singing character”, quite overlooking the equally important roles undertaken by the baritone as Aschenbach’s antagonist, or even nemesis.It is again a part closely associated with its creator, John Shirley-Quirk. In Alan Opie, another worthy successor to the role’s originator has been found. His was a more forceful portrayal than Shirley-Quirk’s and Opie’s darker tone made the characters’ insinuating comments that degree more sinister. He suggested the various personas and yet made it clear they contained the same compelling force. In this opera of, at times, unremitting despondency, Opie’s odd moments of dark humour, such as in the scenes with the Hotel Barber and the Players, were welcome in throwing the inexorable tragedy into still greater relief.

The Voice of Apollo – a disembodied presence in a staging of the opera – was alluringly sung by Michael Chance, and a striking contrast with those of his colleagues.

All three protagonists were quite exemplary in diction. Any odd moments of obscurity were due to other factors. The BBC Singers demonstrated their collective virtuosity and flexibility by not only providing the chorus but, as originally intended, the multitude of ‘minor’ characters. Collectively, they were convincing whether in the siren-like calls from the women of ‘Adziù’ – the sound Aschenbach discerns when he is trying to make out the boy Tadzio’s name – or the banter and badinage of the young men on the boat to Venice. All the ‘cameo’ parts were confidently taken. Allison Smart as the Strawberry Seller and Andrew Murgatroyd as Hotel Porter were fine, and Stuart MacIntyre as the English Clerk in the Travel Bureau, whose long narration warns Aschenbach of the arrival of the cholera plague and urges him to leave, was warmly sympathetic.

The object of Aschenbach’s attention – Tadzio – his family and the other children, are portrayed on-stage by dancers and musically by an extended percussion section in an otherwise modestly dimensioned orchestra. The brittle precision of the tuned percussion in these Gamelan-inspired passages was most impressive, but the response of the City of London Sinfonia generally suggested that some more rehearsal would not have gone amiss.

There was a feeling of hesitancy at times, not aided by some uncertain cueing from the podium. Regrettably, a most important moment was missed by the percussion towards the end of the first act in which the glockenspiel and bell-tree depict Tadzio smiling at Aschenbach. There was a very uncomfortable pause whilst the players realised something was amiss. This completely destroyed the dramatic tension of the scene that culminates in Aschenbach’s painful moment of self-realisation that he only feels capable of articulating as “I love you”.

Hickox did not always appear fully inside the score. Possibly the recording process will enable him to be more flexible in the appropriate places. There was some undue pressing forward and not all the exotic colours or haunting sonorities of this remarkable opera were fully revealed. But the terrifying power unleashed by Britten at the climax of the ‘dream’ scene where Aschenbach hears the contrasting urgings of Apollo and Dionysus, was thrillingly realised and made for a properly disconcerting impact.

This performance was given in aid of “Venice in Peril” and I wondered, from time to time, whether this particular audience would have been happier experiencing Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers rather than the profundities of Britten’s opera. During the first act, there was much to-ing and fro-ing, so that one imagined oneself to be in the busy Venice piazza itself. Upon enquiry, I was informed that the concert promoters had requested the hall ushers to allow entry to latecomers; they provided considerable distraction. For the second half, the atmosphere was more settled, which allowed full concentration on what I believe is Britten’s operatic masterpiece. Philip Langridge’s performance was deservedly cheered and one can hope that the orchestral elements will be enabled to gel both for the Cheltenham Festival performance on 2 July and in Chandos’s studio.

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