Welsh National Opera and No Fit State, Death in Venice

March 8, 2024 by


Video as ever-moving theatrical backdrop is not the only feature that comes into its own in Welsh National Opera’s new and super-choreographed production of Britten’s Death In Venice.

The opera’s seventeen scenes, divided into two acts, take place at locations requiring only minor scene-shifting, but Sam Sharples’s giant black-and-white video rolling behind them, with its concentration on watery Venice, exactly mirrors the liquidity of thought with which the protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach, wrestles with writers’ block, mortality and the counter claims of Apollonian and Dionysian lifestyles.

The production is a collaboration with NoFit State, the circus group famed for dynamic acrobatics, and its members – aerialists – play the parts in this production normally taken by more modest – though no less sophisticated – terpsichoreans. As they clamber up the stage’s metal rigging to swing high and low, and bump and tumble at ground level, Aschenbach’s anguish takes on a more urgent caste. Up to a point.

The opera is based on Thomas Mann’s novella of the same name to a libretto by Myfanwy Piper and was premièred in 1973. A famous writer and a widower with a married daughter living her own life, von Aschenbach realises his link with the world has been through his art. Once the imagination stutters to a halt, he loses that connection, and is encouraged to travel to Venice for its sustaining power of revival. But any solace is eclipsed both by the city’s blacker side – wind-borne disease (actually water-borne cholera), rumour, and tourist panic – and the disruption of his need for order and clarity.

It’s a tough enough lead role in traditional productions and comes off best in smaller spaces than the cavernous Wales Millennium Centre. Parts of Piper’s text are clunky to say the least, but Mark Le Brocq sings the role with strength, intelligence, and lucidity amidst what’s sometimes a maelstrom of movement. Aschenbach, for all his self-agonising, doesn’t attract much sympathy even when the forces of Dionysus are leading him towards self-destruction. He tends to come across as a soliloquising bore who needs to get a grip, his mind rent with seemingly half-understood concepts, and the fear of ‘the abyss’ as a consequence of not sorting out intellectual and physical attitudes to beauty.

But there’s a sub-text in that this is Britten in poor health writing, at the end, a twenty-bar threnody to himself and his long-time partner Peter Pears, for whom the leading role was created. Britten would die three years after the première. This accounts for the opera’s grim exegesis and maybe Britten’s own obsession with male youths, specifically boys, and the conflict it may have created in his mind: he wrote around thirty works that featured them, and von Aschenbach’s pursuit of Tadzio, which his mental contortions never allow him to consummate, may be autobiographical. Maybe. It’s a subject that still plagues Britten’s reputation and legacy. It also rattles the opera as comprehensible drama and misses Mann’s sense of ugly disproportion.

Baritone Roderick Williams sings and plays the roles of The Traveller, an Elderly Fop, a Gondolier, the Hotel Manager, the Barber, the Leader of the Players (a strolling drama group), and the Voice of Dionysus, all of whom are propelling von Aschenbach along the Lido to whatever fate awaits him in the city. It’s an odd task for one singer, akin to opera on the cheap, but it’s what Britten ordered and Williams gives it his best shots, as, for example, the Barber late in the drama fitting von Aschenbach with a coupé rather than dyeing his grey hair. WNO chorus members and a WNO associate artist (Emily Christina Loftus as the Strawberry Seller) handle well the twenty cameo roles created to people the Venetian bustle. As a choral ensemble they are ear-pinningly robust, seemingly further inspiring the flying frenzy going on around them.

Director Olivia Fuchs and circus designer and director Firenza Guidi, of NoFit State, along with designer Nicola Turner and lighting designer Robbie Butler contrive to make a long-ish opera just so. Butler’s non-obtrusive manner in making the southern sun shine through Venetian gloom to point up the sunseeking being crucial.

But what of the “gymnastics”? One might say it was a series of coups de théatre as the dancers-as-acrobats represented the Dionysian threat to von Aschenbach’s weak hold on Apollonian order and restraint. They were played breathtakingly by Antony César as Tadzio, the Polish youth on whom von Aschenbach becomes fixated, his self-justifying resistance crumbling; Tadzio’s family – Mother (Diana Salles): Daughters (Vilhelmina Sinervo and Selma Hellman); and the Governess and Jaschiu (Riccardo Saggese). Flitting around above ground they are the symbols of wild disorder that not even Apollo, played as a character rather than a dismebodied voice by counter-tenor Alexander Chance in a gold lamé suit, can triumph over unconditionally. The problem is that the dancers cartwheeling, walking the wire, somersaulting across the stage, and doing all things airborne on cables dropped from the flies attract attention for their own sakes. Once or twice there were gasps from the audience at the athleticism; sometimes it were as though poor von Aschenbach were torturing himself in order to compete.

No-one ever held their breath at the dance moves in a production that was not adrenalin-powered. But the moves could be spellbindingly beautiful as well.

At this performance – the first time WNO had tackled the opera – breath might have been better held for Britten’s exotic gamelan-inspired orchestration in the dance episodes, with its tuned percussion, and its bravura elsewhere in the score. With very few reservations, the WNO orchestra performed it brilliantly and conductor Leo Hussain had the measure of its vivid character, being especially attentive to von Aschenbach’s accompaniment and the final epilogue, the death in Venice (von Aschenbach’s) and the death of world-view resolution as a kind of punishment.

His strict demarcation of Britten’s two different soundworlds and their coming together at the end was an ironic comment on the lack of single-mindedness elsewhere in the drama. It’s a bleak work, maybe redolent of the composer’s own moral ambiguities and his heightened sense of mortality.

Until March 9 at WMC then touring

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