Saturday, 23 November 2019

Britten Death in Venice, McVicar, Royal Opera House

photo: Catherine Ashmore, Royal Opera House

Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice in a new production by David McVIcar, at the Royal Opera House, reviewed HERE in Opera Today by Claire Seymour who wrote the book Benjamin Britten and his operas. The Royal Opera House isn't the ideal venue for an opera like Death in Venice, which is why it's usually done in smaller houses, as indeed most of Britten;s operas are, given their intense "inwardness".  Gloriana is the exception, not the rule, but even that work is infinitely better when it's understood as an opera-within-an opera,  its powerful message hidden from those who listen only on the surface.

Doing Death in Venice at ROH involves re-thinking scale and perspective. At Covent Garden, McVicar can contrast the grandeur of Venice with its decay and corruption.  Nothing is grand in a city of plague! Aschenbach, the quintessential outsider, comes thinking he'll find inspiration, but it is the beauty of Tadzio that he's drawn to, and that eventually contributes to his death.  Deborah Warner's production for the Met and ENO was popular because it emphasizes the surface glamour, exactly the opposite of what Britten intended.  That says more about audience taste than about the opera itself.  So it's good to read Claire Seymour's analysis in full.

"The tremendous achievement of McVicar, his creative team and a superb,
extensive cast, is to simultaneously portray the mythical aura of the city
of Venice and present a disturbing portrait of a psychology laid bare. The
naturalism of the 1910s setting and the astonishingly detailed realism of
Vicki Mortimer’s designs are intruded by the surreal, the grotesque and the
demonic. The result for Aschenbach is catastrophic.

"McVicar, Mortimer and lighting designer Paul Constable exercise masterly
control of these two intersecting energies, capturing in form and flux both
the wretched reality and the mythic grandeur of Venice. A prevailing
darkness is punctuated by sudden illuminations of light. The golden glow
that greets Aschenbach when the Hotel Manager reveals the glorious view
from the window of his room, for a brief moment bathes the drama in hope.
But, elsewhere, for all the vivid colour that Apollo’s sunrays reveal, the
Lido often seems to shimmer with a secret sickness. When the vista opens to
reveal the glistening teal waters of the limitless sea, the easefulness
that the brightness offers is tempered by a thick, unmoving green glow. The
sky above is cloudless, but it is muted by a patina of soft grey or pink
flush.When Aschenbach arrives by gondola through the swirling mists, we can
almost smell the pungency - what he later describes as a “sweetish
medicinal cleanliness, overlaying the smell of still canals

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