Death in Venice – London Coliseum – Carole Woddis.

Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice could not be more different to the commonly associated Visconti film or Mahler music he attached to it.

Based on the Thomas Mann novella, it’s less immediately musically accessible than either Britten’s Peter Grimes or Billy BuddDeath in Venice (1973), his final operatic work carries a pellucid, atonal purity.

How to render death and dying, creative paralysis and abstract neoplatonic notions of beauty, perfection and the spirit into song and orchestration?

Britten, originally of course with Peter Pears in mind, enforces the tenor line.  And in Deborah Warner’s ENO revival, first staged with great success in 2007, she matches Britten with austerity and a brilliant conjunction of simplicity of line and colour.  Venice is rendered through shimmering watery projections, a single gondolier, figures and landscapes in silhouette and billowing white drapes.  Buttressed by Chloe Obolensky’s high Edwardian costuming, Warner’s staging is busy but never fussy.

All stands however by the Aschenbach, the writer deserted by the creative urge who falls in love with a vision of pure beauty, a young Polish boy on the brink of manhood, Tadzio.

`My mind beats on,’ `but no words come,’ sings ENO’s current interpreter, John Graham-Hall, a tall, hunched figure in white linen suit that seems to crumple and hang progressively thinly as infatuation, his inner conflict – between repression and hitherto unpermitted surrender to Dionysian passion – and the cholera sweeping through the Venetian waters take their toll.  It’s hard to imagine a more perfect interpreter, clear of tone, dramatic in gesture.

In the end, the changes Britten and his librettist, Myfanwy Piper make in turning Tadzio into an athletic paragon – and here a slightly chunky dancer – are at odds with the fragile, effete individual of Mann’s invention.  But the grandeur and the diffuse, eastern influences of gamelan and percussion that haunt this work bring Britten’s Death in Venice to a gripping tragic finale.

A work that haunts long after its final chords, it’s very elusive miasmic qualities make it one you long to get grips with again!

English National Opera’s Death in Venice was at the London Coliseum from June 14-26, 2013; see www.eno.org.

Carole Woddis © 2013.