Opera North's Festival of Britten concludes, appropriately, with Benjamin Britten's last opera: Death in Venice. Adaptations from page to stage are never easy. Philosophical concepts that work within a book sound laboured when turned into dialogue or, in this case, lyrics.
Myfanwy Piper's libretto sticks to the theme of classical beauty and the attraction of an unobtainable object rather than, say, more universal concerns of frailty and aging. The result is a faithful adaptation but one with a remote atmosphere that never addresses the possibility that the actions of the central character could be perceived as predatory.
Holidaying in Venice after the death of his wife philosopher and author Gustav von Aschenbach (Alan Oke) finds his aesthetic approach to life offended by encounters with crude fops and players (Peter Savidge in multiple roles). He becomes infatuated with Tadzio (Emily Mezieres), a striking teenage boy who inspires him to begin writing again.
Von Aschenbach justifies his obsession by perceiving Tadzio as a classical even mythological beauty rather than a sexual object. But the boy may turn out to be an angel of death making von Aschenbach reluctant to leave the city even after cholera breaks out.
The pace of the first Act is determined by the melancholy but dawdling score and is dominated by lengthy speeches setting out intellectual arguments but lacking drama. Although Peter Savidge, as von Aschenbach's nemesis, is on-stage throughout long gaps between the duo's encounters prevent momentum building. We never get the sense that Savidge represents death waiting for his chance to strike.
Act Two has a greater sense of urgency – of time running out and the music is more stirring as a result. Alan Oke's inner turmoil gives von Aschenbach an appreciation of how other people might view his obsessions even if the character never seems able to acknowledge that he may be in the wrong.
The nature of the material shapes the way in which director Yoshi Oida tells the story. Richard Hudson's costumes are ravishing and Tom Schenk's set features on-stage waterways through which the cast splash. But the opera largely comprises one character telling his tale direct to the audience, which necessitates long static periods. Choreographer Daniela Kurz creates an impressive classical Olympic games sequence but the director's efforts to establish a pagan feast are limited by the score, which is much too polite for such rough magic.
The evening is a triumph for Alan Oke who is on-stage for the entire opera and manages to find the humanity in someone who is using his intellect as a defensive shield. Oke's tightly reined stance suggests that von Aschenburg is using his artistic view of life to restrain his sensual appetites. Despite Oke's dignified interpretation von Aschenbach ends as a sad figure having succumbed to his instincts and allowed his nemesis to paint him in pagan colours.