Death in Venice by Benjamin Britten is a modern opera as far as opera goes, first performed in 1973 and based on the Thomas Mann novel from 1912. The modern style carries through the design and use of dance as well as the subject matter it openly covers. The opera also feels like a bit like a novelty as it is in English rather than the much more common German, French or Italian. I would say if anyone is looking to make their first foray into opera this is a very accessible opera to start with.
Set in Venice in the early part of the 20th century it follows famous writer Gustav von Aschenbach as he tries to find some peace to write his new novel. At First Aschenbach seeks the solitude of the mountains yet after a few chance encounters in his native Munich he is convinced that everything he is searching for can be found in the fabulous canals of Venice.
However Venice only brings him distraction and in the end tragedy, when first arriving Aschenbach observes a Polish family walking along the canals and is instantly struck by the beauty of the young son. From that moment on all other concerns are neglected including his work as he obsesses over and pretty much stalks the family hoping to create a chance encounter to bring them together.
It all starts to fall apart for Aschenbach as he discovers that Venice is in the grip of a Cholera epidemic. All the wealthy foreigners start to flee the city and Aschenbach contemplates this and even uses his considerable wealth to arrange transport for himself and perhaps the polish family as well. Yet, he cannot work up the courage to confront the family and the boy directly and resigns himself to stay in the plague infested city to continue watching the boy from afar.
The subject matter is obviously modern and the music that accompanies the story follows suit. The music is not the star of the show it is subtle and understated much more like that a cinematic score then one of a grand opera. The performers often sing without instrumental accompaniment helping to give the whole show a very dark and sombre mood. Although they’re many moments where the internal is made external through song there is a lot of small talk between characters that helps to lighten the mood and even give a dose of humour to a very grim story.
The cast is relatively small for this show other then the main character of Aschenback played with stunning emotional range by Alan Oke many of the other roles are played by Peter Savidge who moves very convincingly from an old man, the hotel manager, a barber, etc. The young boy is played by a dancer Adam Serigson who brings a dream like element to the show and help maintain the innocence and almost otherworldliness of not only the character but the fantasies of Ashenback.
Death in Venice walks a fine line between bringing opera into the modern world and keeping true to its classical roots, it never loses touch with those cornerstone of opera that do make it so grand and appealing. It keeps with large and universal themes such as unrequited love just in a narrative arc that is new to opera.
Death in Venice (1973)
By: Benjamin BrittenDirector: Yoshi Oida
Conductor: Steuart Bedford
Set Designer: Tom Schenk
Cast: Alan Oke, Peter Savidge and Adam Sergison
Death in Venice will be playing at The Four Seasons Centre until November 6th.