Attack of the gondola: Death in Venice at the ROH
Death in Venice
Royal Opera House
Amphitheatre A33, £18
26 November 2019
As a fervent Britten fan I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve often struggled with Death in Venice. David McVicar’s new production for the Royal Opera doesn’t close the loop for me, although the superb performances from Mark Padmore as Aschenbach and conductor Richard Farnes in the pit come closer.
I’d like to blame librettist Myfanwy Piper for my woes, but given Britten’s experience as a dramatist by the time he wrote Death in Venice and the general acclaim with which the opera is held I think it must just be me. What upsets me the most is that I find so much of the music wonderful – the Serenissima motif, the vibraphone for Tadzio, the sound of the vaporetto, Apollo’s hymn, the Italian singer set piece, the parched ending; it’s a chocolate box of ideas and sounds. But the first act’s endless rowing back and forth between the Lido and the city never fails to frustrate me. I know Aschenbach’s indecision is key to his character development, but must it be so literal, and must it take so long?
There, I’ve said it. Do not judge, but pity me. Anyway, it’s not surprising, given my complaint, that a production from probably the most literal opera director working today does not solve my problems. You get what you order with McVicar and so we have tasteful designs from Vicki Mortimer, a devotion to accurate period detail, old-school blocking and lots of columns. Columns seem to be a thing with him at the moment. The columns even move this time, to accompany a gently swaying gondola – nice enough on first sight but, with the first act of this opera being what it is, I was soon moaning in inward agony at the sight of that bloody gondola again. For me, the staging of Aschenbach sitting in a gondola needs more than Aschenbach sitting in a gondola, no matter how carefully made that gondola and its accompanying drifting columns may be.
The choreography for Tadzio and his friends is of course a key element of Death in Venice, and can demand more than the literal. Lynn Page’s work here is fine: it fills the space, responds to the music, and adequately suggests the play of early 20th-century young men on a beach. I don’t think it does anything more, despite being graced by the most beauteous presence of the Royal Ballet’s Leo Dixon as Tadzio – and here is a place where Deborah Warner’s ENO production, with choreography by Kim Brandstrup, is to my mind unquestionably preferable.
It would be difficult to better Padmore’s performance, though. Words and notes are rendered with absolute clarity: it’s as though he lays the score before you. He uses this precision to construct a character of Aschenbach that is completely integrated with the music, moulded together with a stage presence of the exact same integrity. It is a masterful performance, seamless and affecting, seeming to stem exclusively from the music but of course invisibly guided by Padmore’s own musical and dramatical sensibilities.
I’m less sure about Gerald Finley as the tormenting baritone. His tone is as well-produced as ever, but I think there’s something clean-cut about Finley which he can’t relinquish enough to inhabit this malicious, venereal role. He also suffered a slip of memory which, probably unfairly, furthered my feeling that his heart wasn’t in it. Instead of Tim Mead, Randall Scotting stepped in at short notice as Apollo; unsurprisingly he was a bit nervous, very sharp and not totally sure of the notes. Otherwise there was bizarre luxury casting in the remaining small roles, the ensemble including Rebecca Evans, Rosie Aldridge, Hanna Hipp, Colin Judson, Andrew Tortise, Sam Furness and Dominic Sedgwick – not that I’m complaining.
The ROH Orchestra prove that after the fiasco of Billy Budd all they need is a conductor who knows what he’s doing. They get this in Farnes and together give a pellucid reading of Britten’s score.
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