Michael Tanner

Opera review: Deborah Warner’s production of Death in Venice is everything that a production should be, Lohengrin

Text settings

Death in Venice

ENO, in rep until 26 June



Thomas Mann, Gustav von Aschenbach, Benjamin Britten, united in a common interest, one the expression of which is still taboo, yet which Mann succeeded in writing a bestseller about, and Britten his last testament. Mann surmounted the interest, just, by fantasising and remaining amazed that people actually ‘do it’, if his reaction to Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar is anything to go by.

Aschenbach is so enthralled that he dies rather than separating from his pubescent beloved, and never has the courage to speak to him. About Britten things are still a bit unclear, and are likely to remain so. What astonishes is that Mann’s story has been an accepted masterpiece since it was published — even the Nazis didn’t round on it, though they proscribed him in general. Yet if Aschenbach had elicited any glimmer of response from Tadzio, even a rapid embrace, he would be regarded as one of the most appalling villains in literature, and Death in Venice would be an expensive rarity on AbeBooks. Mann pulled it off partly thanks to his gorgeous prose, partly by immersing his hero’s desire in elaborate philosophising, with quasi-Platonic musings on the nature of Beauty, and the whole exciting dialectic of Dionysus and Apollo; while Britten renders Apollo almost sexless by having him sung by a countertenor, and his Dionysus has to employ the same singer who takes the parts of the dirty old man on the boat, the dubious singer, the slimy barber, and so on.

The book is virtually a monologue, or an account of Aschenbach’s inner life, which sets an obvious problem for Britten and his librettist Myfanwy Piper, which they can’t be said to have solved. Aschenbach indulges in lengthy but not particularly coherent ramblings about how tired he is, how he feels about Venice, and above all how he feels about Tadzio. His ramblings can’t be as long or analytic as they are in the novella, so they are confusing and disjointed, and might as well be spoken; certainly they have no musical interest. So all the sung exchanges in the opera are peripheral, though the hotel manager and the rest contribute to Aschenbach’s decline. Thanks to the large number of recalcitrant features of the opera, Aschenbach’s frustration becomes the audience’s, though not in the intended way. There is the additional problem that the opera of agonised longing had been written almost 120 years earlier by Wagner, with whom competition would be vain.

It is enormously to the credit of all the performers and the ‘creative team’ that ENO’s production of Death in Venice is such a gripping evening. Deborah Warner’s production is everything that a production should be, with Tom Pye’s settings ideally atmospheric, uncluttered, dedicated to focusing on what matters in the work. John Graham-Hall, like his great predecessor Ian Bostridge, is too young to be a convincing Aschenbach, but he makes the most of what isn’t a wholly grateful role, though whether Aschenbach should be so inveterately irritable as this is a question.

Andrew Shore, as one would expect, is brilliant in his seven unsavoury roles. The musical inspiration that Edward Gardner discovers and imparts struck me as even more impressive than it had first time round; he is clearly one of the foremost opera conductors of our time.

Nothing much can be done to rescue the school sports day atmosphere of the closing part of Act I, with an insufficiently wan Tadzio taking all the prizes. And surely it must be agreed that Britten’s inspiration flags in Act I much more than in Act II, to a worrying extent. Once Aschenbach’s downhill trajectory gathers momentum and the atmosphere of sickliness and collapse intensifies, the thinness of much of the music strikes one as conveying the exhaustion within the work, and not, as sometimes previously, the exhaustion of the work. I doubt whether many of the Britten year celebrations will be as impressive as this.

I couldn’t resist revisiting the Welsh National Opera’s Lohengrin in Birmingham, and if anything found it still finer than I had in Cardiff a few days before. What struck me more forcefully is the magnificence of Peter Wedd’s embodiment of the title role. How often does a singer wholly identify with a character? Wedd has everything: an arresting presence, a fine appearance — he’s a Max von Sydow lookalike — and the musicality to make the most of this wonderful but difficult and quite short role.

He is by no means the only reason, but he is the chief one, why this production should be preserved for posterity. But Lothar Koenigs, who has previously struck me as a decent Wagnerian conductor, not a special one, ignites this Lohengrin from the incandescent Prelude onwards.  And Emma Bell’s Elsa also seemed even finer, more inward, than it had in Cardiff. I’m certain, alas, that not many of the Wagner celebrations will be as impressive as this.