English National Opera prizes itself on being the premier company for performing operas by Benjamin Britten, and this production by director Deborah Warner (a revival from 2007 of Britten’s setting of a Thomas Mann novella) certainly supports that boast. Her fluid evocation of 1920s Venice is faultless. Beautiful to behold, the city on the waves glimmers in Adriatic summer sun (courtesy of lighting designer Jean Kalman) as the opera’s protagonist, the renowned but spent German author Gustav von Aschenbach, progresses around the city in a streamlined visual narrative, accompanied by slick and almost unnoticeable scene changes.
As the dying Aschenbach, tenor John Graham-Hall is superb. In a beige, three-piece linen suit he staggers breathlessly around La Serenissima in pursuit of the truth about the sickness (cholera) sweeping the city and, more importantly, trying to catch up with his impossible fantasy – Tadzio, the beautiful pubescent Polish boy he sees on the beach. The tall tenor gradually becomes more ill and crumpled as events progess – ageing before our eyes.
The other star is multi-tasking baritone Andrew Shore, who effortlessly moves between seven different roles, from ageing fop and barber, to hotel manager and the voice of Dionysius. Every word from him and Graham-Hall is clear and justifies the absence of distracting surtitles. The chorus, too, rise to the occasion with much atmospheric offstage singing.
Tadzio is a silent dancing role, and one well realised by Sam Zaldivar, who cavorts with his mates on the beach – all presented engagingly in Kim Brandstrup’s choreography. Meanwhile, in the pit, Edward Gardner matched the slickness of the production, finding a lush register for the music, yet occasionally ringing out the dark emotion absent from the business onstage.
So, while the production may be flawless, there are problems with opera itself. If one strips away the philosphical Apollo versus Dionysius humbug, there is no escaping the fact that this is controversial and distasteful subject matter – an ageing author who surrenders to his repressed paedophilic tendencies. That aside, dramatically, there is nothing at stake here. Aschenbach is on his last legs, his wife is dead, his only daughter grown up.
To give in to his pathetic fantasy is merely an internal act with no repercussions. Even the fact that he is trapped in Venice during the cholera outbreak is due to a mix-up with luggage, not because he ironically finds a new lease of life having thrown off the chains of social propriety. Consequently, the opera sails by like a beautiful holiday – an exquisite memory but emotionally unengaging. Jonathan Lennie