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Death in Venice (Opera North)

Opera North rounds off its centenary celebration of Britten with a revival of Yoshi Oida's 2007 Aldeburgh production of Death in Venice

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Coincidentally the only two comments I overheard in the interval were the same word: "interesting". Not one that I would disagree with. Though the second half is more involving, Opera North's production of Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice impresses without having the dramatic impact of the previous productions in the company's splendid Festival of Britten.

Alan Oke as Gustav von Aschenbach.
© Robert Workman
I suspect that this is more to do with the work itself than Yoshi Oida's sensitive and imaginative production, originally staged at Aldeburgh in 2007 and now revived by Rob Kearley. In Tom Schenk's simple sets – all wooden boards over water, no campanile or lines of gondolas – the production focuses on essentials, on Aschenbach's alienation from the world and the dream-like (or nightmarish) semi-reality of Venice.

Myfanwy Piper's libretto stays close to Thomas Mann's original novella. Gustav von Aschenbach, an eminent author, encounters an uncouth foreigner in a cemetery in Munich and is inspired by his strangeness to break his customary routine and holiday in the warm South – in Venice. When there, he encounters a series of vaguely menacing figures, all prefigured by the Traveller in the cemetery. He also sees, philosophises about, falls in love with, but never speaks to, a beautiful Polish boy, Tadzio.

What dramatic tension there is derives from the growing menace of the plague and the conflict within Aschenbach of the influence of the Greek gods Apollo, whom he has always followed, and Dionysus whose wild excesses tempt him to his final degradation and death.

Unusually for an opera of 2 ½ hours stage time, there are effectively only two principals. Alan Oke has the measure of Aschenbach throughout, his manner and his singing equally meticulous and precise in the early scenes, soliloquising with eloquent control, unbuttoning gradually into both lyricism and torment as he remains the permanent outsider, his disintegration understated, but moving.

Peter Savidge sharply characterises all the menacing strangers without a hint of melodrama, throws in a straight portrayal of the Hotel Manager trying desperately to keep his guests and finishes up as a resonant Voice of Dionysus opposing Christopher Ainslie's clear-voiced counter-tenor Apollo.

The always excellent chorus is deployed more as individuals than as a unit, with David Llewellyn's Hotel Porter developing more character than most and Gillene Butterfield and Nicholas Watts having fun as strolling players in support of Savidge's extravagant leader of the troupe.

Tadzio, his friends and family are portrayed via dance, Daniela Kurz's choreography (revived by Katharina Bader) suggesting the Greek models implied by Aschenbach's obsessions and favouring restraint over sensuousness. Tadzio himself is danced, with self-possessed dignity and poise, by Emily Mezieres.

Death in Venice is not the score for orchestral tutti and Richard Farnes typically draws fine playing from individual sections and soloists, with the percussion section excelling. Ultimately it's tuned percussion that carries the dying fall of the closing bars.

Death in Venice continues at Leeds Grand Theatre until 25 October. For further information visit www.operanorth.co.uk

Ron Simpson