English National Opera at London Coliseum
Deborah Warner's production of Britten's last opera, new in 2007, has had to wait six years for its first revival but the few problems with the original run have been ironed out and it represents a spectacular end to a strong season for the company. It's also a flawless celebration of Britten's genius in his centenary year.
Ian Bostridge was impressive as Aschenbach six years ago but there was an issue with his age, which belied the character's late middle age crisis. John Graham Hall gives the role an authentic world-weariness, as he totters ever deeper into bewilderment and increasing desperation until he's become the "young-old horror" he despises. His elegant tone is reminiscent of the peerless Philip Langridge and all-round it's a miraculous portrayal.
Edward Gardner began his tenure as Music Director with this opera and his interpretation has matured into a great performance of this sublime score, with marvelous playing from the ENO Orchestra. The wonderful gamelan sounds are just part of an inventiveness and depth of feeling that no opera score has captured since. Warner and her designer Tom Pye serve up vista after vista of visual beauty to match that of the music and the use of the chorus is impeccable.
The seven baritone parts, brilliantly devised by Britten, are played with characteristic aplomb by Andrew Shore, seedy, insidious and then imposing as Dionysus, who runs through each of the previous incarnations as though they were all bodily manifestations of the god's gleeful wickedness. Countertenor Tim Mead is a strong Apollo, here physically realised as a relaxed young man rather than a disembodied god.
The chorus, a little weak in 2007, is on much better form now and there are sharp characterisations of the Strawberry-seller and the Beggar Woman by Anna Dennis and Madeleine Shaw. Peter Van Hulle and Marcus Farnsworth are superb as the Hotel Porter and English Clerk, contributing to a totally convincing evocation of not quite ordinary life happening around the central character.
Kim Brandstrup's choreography is perfect for this work: masculine and athletic, with no trace of the fey balleticism that rather marred the opera's first production. Sam Zaldivar's Tadzio is brilliant, all the more effective for his ordinariness, rather than an effete beauty that can make Aschenbach's obsession unpalatable.
The decision to dispense with surtitles is justified, due to the tight diction of the principals and Britten's sympathetic vocal lines, although there are some inevitable problems with intelligibility of the chorus. It's a reminder of what opera without surtitles at its best could be and, sadly, too often wasn't.
There are only four more performances at the Coliseum and this revival can't be recommended highly enough as an opportunity to experience the magic of opera, whether you're attending for the first or five hundredth time. A knockout evening.
- Simon Thomas