Death in Venice, Royal Opera House review

Death in Venice… re-imagined by David McVicar.

Death in Venice, one of Britten’s most enigmatic operas – and also his last – is based on the novella written by German author Thomas Mann (1912). In the novella and opera, the protagonist Gustav von Aschenbach is a recently enobled author who falls into a one-sided unrealised Platonic love with the youth Tadzio, who is from an aristocratic Polish family residing at the same hotel. Ultimately, von Aschenbach’s obsession succumbs to a deadly Asian cholera plague and the author, as the title suggests, dies in Venice.

Director David McVicar’s interpretation of Britten’s opera is a fascinating and revelatory experience. The audience is transported from the theatrical canals of Venice to one solitary character’s (im)moral dichotomy. McVicar successfully balances the elegance and beauty of opera with a poetic introspection of von Aschenbach’s moral turpitude and the result is a veritable masterpiece.

Mark Padmore as Aschenbach in Death in Venice (c) ROH 2019 photographed by Catherine Ashmore.

Mark Padmore, the incredible tenor who plays Gustav von Aschenbach, carries the show. One could almost be mistaken in thinking Padmore’s initial reticence on stage is due to opening night’s jitters. It is, however, a marked control of character: for Padmore reveals to us throughout the performance von Aschenbach’s transition of character and innermost thoughts in an incredibly realistic manner. In this performance, Padmore is absolutely the linchpin.

To compliment and contrast von Aschenbach’s dark and dense mental turmoil, is the sprightly Tadzio, represented by the Royal Ballet’s Leo Dixon. Dixon pirouettes, he glides; at each and every turn he captivates the audience as if we too, have a von Aschenbach obsession. Lynne Page’s choreography here, as throughout, is spectacular.

Leo Dixon as Tadzio and Mark Padmore as Aschenbach in Death in Venice (c) ROH 2019 photographed by Catherine Ashmore

The beauty of both characters’ performances is highlighted by the backdrop – or perhaps lack thereof. Designer Vicki Mortimer allows Dixon to dazzle when he dances, with a shimmering blue sea sparkling behind him.

The depth of emotion in the opera is framed by the magnificent pillars that represent Venice; smaller canals emerge when there is a sense of emergency and compression. And lastly, von Aschenbach’s deep and troubled mind is revealed to us in moments of pitch black and through the smoky corridors of Venice’s canals, where dubious gondoliers glide us through the unfolding drama. Credit must go to Paule Constable’s lighting effects that enhance the enigma of every scene.

Production image Death in Venice (c) ROH 2019 photographed by Catherine Ashmore

Another character whose performance is praiseworthy is the versatile Gerald Finley who plays many mischievous characters: traveller/ elderly fop/ old gondolier/ hotel manager/ hotel barber/ leader of the players/ voice of Dionysus. His jovial and whimsical acting changes from the obsequious hotel manager, with the farcical combover gesture after every respectful bow, to the almost impertinent but oh-so charming hotel barber who never forgets to extend his hand for a tip.

Gerald Finley as the Leader of the Players in Death in Venice (c) ROH 2019 photographed by Catherine Ashmore

Tim Mead, as the God Apollo (representing music, light and poetry), gives a strong performance. Parading as a holidaymaker, his mellifluous yet strong countertenor almost coaxes Aschenbach into venerating his personification of the ideal – in this case, Tadzio.

Conductor Richard Farnes navigates Britten’s distinctively diverse and almost eclectic score as easily as the gondoliers transport von Aschenbach through the waters of Venice. The orchestra’s mastery is evident throughout. When Tadzio appears, there are synchronised surges of music, and crescendos when Tadzio is raised. When von Aschenbach indulges his fantasies and illusions, an almost brittle and restless piano accompanies Padmore’s voice like a heartbeat.

Leo Dixon as Tadzio in Death in Venice (c) ROH 2019 photographed by Catherine Ashmore

Britten’s score abounds in moods and erratic chords and Richard Farnes successfully reveals each note and beat in an almost unnerving precision.

There is much to take away from the performance. It is not just the beauty of the scenography, nor the lyrical beauty of performing voices and instruments. All of these are undeniably brilliant. The underlying and somewhat cryptic messages written by Britten and conveyed by McVicar are haunting: for in beauty, or perhaps the veneration of beauty, one can lose one’s self.

If you are fortunate enough to see this production, we hope that you too will lose yourself in the beauty of this masterpiece.

Author: Julia Florence

Julia Florence is the founder and editor-in-chief of Performance Reviewed.