Richard Farnes: “I love working on Britten”

richard farnes

Richard Farnes will be conducting Benjamin Britten’s last opera, Death in Venice, at Royal Opera House from the 21st November to 6th December 2019.

Opera fans will know Farnes from his tenure at Opera North, Glyndebourne, the NY Metropolitan Opera and the Royal Academy of Music, to name but a few.

Farnes was a natural choice, having conducted a number of Britten’s operas, including Death in Venice, easily the most complex in the composer’s entire body of operatic oeuvre.

Set in 1913 Venice, the action focuses on the ageing Aschenbach, in the grips of a writer’s block, who develops an obsession with a Polish youth holidaying at the same hotel with his family.

David McVicar’s production promises to be as polished as we have come to expect of him, supported by brilliant set designer, Vicki Mortimer.

Mark Padmore will be the troubled Aschenbach while Gerald Finley will sing in multiple roles.

We met Richard Farnes briefly, in between rehearsals, and this is what he told us:

Q. You’ve conducted several of Britten’s operas. Is Britten more challenging than say, Verdi? 

A. It is different.  Death in Venice is an immensely complicated piece, with lots of different characters, two solo parts and many small ones. The last Britten opera I conducted was Turn of the Screw. Musically speaking, Death in Venice is more complex – the orchestration is different, with a huge percussion section. 

Compared to Verdi, Britten is immensely practical, clear, focused on balance, and generally considerate to conductors, because he was a conductor himself. 

With Verdi there is less musical information on the page, not everything was written in the score.

Both composers have innately theatrical responses to things, recreating the dramatic ideas in their head on stage.

Q. How is this ROH production different to previous productions you have directed?

A. The last time I directed Death in Venice was a year ago. That was a highly stylised production, with a Japanese stage director. It was an existing production, having been staged in Canada six years earlier, so we didn’t have to create the entire show from scratch as is the case with this McVicar production, which is totally new and original.

Q. Do you have a personal preference?

A. No. I love working on Britten, because he is an English composer and I am an English conductor. 

Q. The popularity of easy listening operas remains unchallenged. Do you think the popularity of opera in general and contemporary opera in particular is on the rise or on the wane among Millenials?

A. The battle between classic and modern opera is ongoing and some of it is due to media coverage. 

In many ways, younger generation opera goers are easier to convert because they are not pre-conditioned to have a preference for the classical tune, nor attached to the melody element.

Once you get them into it, they are more easily swept away than the older opera goer who tends to be more traditional.  They are blown away by the magic of the theatrical which is unquestionably powerful. The opera sets increase the dramatic intensity and today’s singers are keen to engage with the drama – they are keen to act as well as sing.

This Death in Venice production is a good case in point. The camera constantly moves around the set which is pared down to key elements. The casting is brilliant in that Padmore and Finley are outstanding singing, all-round musicians, very sharp and bright. Finley plays no fewer than seven roles, each with a sharply defined musical identity, all edging Aschenbach towards death and highlighting his mortality.

Padmore is a lead singer, intensely interested in both composer and librettist, and reflecting on every single phrase.  This is not his first Death in Venice performance – he performed at an opera festival in Cornwall – whereas for Finley, this is a first.

There will be just five performances of the opera this season and all have sold very well, a testimony to the interest in this production. There are still a few tickets left, and members of the public can buy tickets to sold out productions through the Friday Rush scheme.

It’s a testimony to the interest in this production, which incorporates a great deal of detail, is a great portrayal of the mystery and attraction of Venice, with an intricate stage, a whimsical, almost cinematic elasticity and, as I said, a brilliant piece of casting.

The production is, in fact, a response to Thomas Mann’s novella, rather than to the Visconti film by the same name. 

This interview was originally published on BBeyond Magazine’s website.

Death in Venice

21 November–6 December 2019

Royal Opera House

Author: Julia Florence

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