Garsington Opera: Death in Venice
Wormsley Estate, Stokenchurch, Buckinghamshire
June 21, 2015
Midsummer’s eve in the green heaven of Buckinghamshire, a fine production of a great opera with a hefty dance component – what’s not to like? Although a little more sun and heat would have been welcome!
Despite living cheek by jowl, opera and ballet are not always equal partners on the world’s great opera house stages. However Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice is an exception. Britten made a conscious choice to employ both voice and movement to express the non-verbal relationship between the distinguished German writer, Gustav von Aschenbach and Tadzio, the young Polish boy, in his adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novel. In Paul Curran’s production the two forms find a deft balance.
Garsington Opera provides an ideal setting: the glass walls blur the boundaries between theatre interior and the lush English countryside while to create Venice, itself a liminal place between land and water, Kevin Knight creates a simple and effective set. A sea-blue backdrop with billowing white curtains that dissect the stage on diagonals to form an impermanent barrier conjures up a space where imagination can take flight.
Steuart Bedford, who conducted the first performance of the work in 1973, was again on the podium. In this intimate setting, he drew attention to the fine detail of the score and brought startling clarity to the instrumentation.
Paul Nilon, as the self-important but emotionally insecure Aschenbach, gave an outstanding portrayal of the destructive force of an obsession. It is a mammoth role and Nilon held the stage with quiet authority to the tragic end. Britten’s constrained score reproduces the uncertainty in Aschenbach’s mind but in the dance passages the music finds greater freedom and confidence.
For the aging novelist Tadzio is a Greek god: “I might have created him” he sings, while in Andreas Heise’s choreography he is a boisterous lad engaging in horseplay with his mates on the beach. Heise captures effectively the physicality and power that so seduces Aschenbach. Celestin Boutin plays Tadzio to perfection. His mop of blonde curls and frank, direct gaze are disarming while his well-defined musculature brings to life the Apollo of Britten’s imagination. The close of the first act, where the beach transforms in Aschenbach’s mind to epic Greek theatre is given full rein. The chorus in masks and cloaks and a goddess in gold pleats complement the gang of athletic boys: their sporting competition skilfully realised in dance movements.The dance is integrated throughout. For the governess Georgie Rose Connolly, who larks with the young lads, the balletic choreography heightens her rather prissy demeanour while the mother also portrays her anxiety through expressive movements.
William Dazeley, a veritable chameleon, gave excellent support playing out the slew of character roles from the enigmatic Traveller to the Bacchanalian Leader of the Players. Heise’s choreography for this masque within the opera portrays both desperation and debauchery as the cholera plague takes hold. In this pared down theatrical production, both the music and the text are striking in their lucidity while the dance, in contrast to Aschenbach’s neurotic fantasies, provides an earthy and robust reality.
Death in Venice continues at Garsington Opera to July 10. For details of the opera-ballet and other performances this season, see www.garsingtonopera.org