Mark le Brocq as Gustav von Aschenbach with an arching Antony Cesar as Tadzio.

Pictures: Johan Persson 

Death in Venice

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


Thomas Mann's most famous and acclaimed novella, Death in Venice (Der Tod in Venedig) had its origins in a story relating to a true-life experience that befell the author, then in his mid-thirties, upon a visit to the seagirt Italian city. While there, he became increasingly and troublingly aware of, and soon attracted to and enraptured by, a Polish boy aged in fact little more than 10.  

He believed the boy's name to be 'Tadzio' - Thaddeus. Ironically in the opera he first recalls the sound as 'Adjiu', which in fact was correct. The true name of the youngster, as has since been revealed, was 'Adziu', the shortening for the common Polish name Wladysław; the boy, Wladyslaw Moes, was from an aristocratic Polish family, and even with his young years was acutely conscious of a man in middle age who seemed to take a repeated interest in him.  

Mann's story, and Visconti's celebrated film, made 60 years after Mann's intimate and not entirely unerotic experience, and likewise Britten's last opera, deliberately unconnected with the film, thus all in some sense conceal an unnerving actual circumstance.   

The subtly differentiated ways Britten deploys three main characteristics in his music - there are of course several separately engineered Leitmotifs - is well documented: the incredibly alluring Balinese gamelan elements first given prominence in his 1950s ballet The Prince of the Pagodas following an intensely memorable visit to Indonesia, here providing material for his extraordinary, unexpected, freshly inspiring music for the dancers (Tadzio and his friends, here presented in fits of astonishing skill and dexterity by not dance but acrobatics); or the almost blasting, certainly full-bodied use of the complete orchestra, particularly in several dramatic build-ups towards the end, are two of those idioms on which the score depends.

But what especially captured the imagination in this presentation, and revealed the potential to come, came right at the start, in the two first evolving scenes, perhaps overlong yet the more welcome for the accompanying detail. This was Britten's inspired use of woodwind - often paired, but particularly solo. Oboe, clarinet, and with particular dexterity and irony the bassoon.

The refinement of these intermittent instrumental comments, as Mark Le Brocq's superbly, most touchingly characterised Gustav von Aschenbach, later so close to his object of pursuit yet tragically isolated throughout, was astonishing, teased out with such delicacy and refinement by conductor Leo Hussain (his masterly control and intimacy with the entire score obvious throughout).  

trio WNO

Alexander Chance as The Voice of Apollo, Mark le Brocq as Gustav von Aschenbach and Roderick Williams as The Voice of Dionysus

The score here underlines with mystic allure Aschenbach's nagging opening perplexity, in his vast, cleverly projected library (Sam Sharples) - 'My mind beats on' - but venturing into doubt about his very art ('Should I give up my fruitless struggle?'), the despairing lament ('Would that the light of inspiration had not left me') and 'Should I give up my fruitless struggle with the word?' all enunciated with fabulous poignancy by Le Brocq's deeply vexed, initially strangled introspection, with the finesse of staccato woodwind continuing to enunciate his unyielding introspection.  

This prefaces his horrified encounter, even before he reaches the ship station, with the Elderly Fop, who (apart from his initial luring character 'The Traveller') is the first, outrageously fancy-clad role from the unerringly brilliant Roderick Williams, one of those where Britten's librettist, the ingenious Myfanwy Piper, clings tightly and respectfully to Mann's original script. All of this, masterfully evinced by a terrifically on-form WNO orchestra, and typical of the excellence they would go on to show throughout - bespoke the not just the magnificent playing but the fascinating unfolding of the entire story that was to follow.

 The vocal range and almost heroic versatility of baritone Roderick Williams is  legendary and of worldwide fame; but when he turns from song - always superb - to exploring character on the operatic stage too is, he proves - surely not surprisingly - always vivid and galvanising.  

It certainly was true here. The energy, the vivacity and the sheer naughtiness he brought to each of his roles, originally personified with unforeseen brilliance by the great John Shirley-Quirk, was amazing.

Williams captured here the camp awfulness of the overdressed Fop, the hyperactive mockery of the visiting Players' leader and the flamboyance if not campery of the Hotel barber, making Achenbach up with (as Mann indicates) a ridiculous hairpiece rendering him virtually the same kind of foppish, almost grotesque figure he had so despised, were splendidly offset by the in fact cynical propriety of the hotel manager and - hoist upon the ladder which formed part of Designer Nicola Turner's restrained but useful set - the luring, scarlet-clad, corrupting Dionysus, pitted against Alexander Chance's proper, demanding but dismissed gold-clad Apollo, to which add the puzzling insistence of the apparently criminal gondolier, all presented wholly different characters.

 Williams' tours-de-force supplied a feat of huge and clever, ingeniously-devised virtuosity, and nothing less than brilliant in the welter of Olivia Fuchs's (with many accalimed WNO stagings in her impressive portfolio) tremendously skilled manipulation of her major figures, contrasting of course with the static, almost frozen figure of Le Brocq's endlessly confused, besotted Aschenbach.


Diana Salles as The Polish Mother

 One scene from the second half of the opera had a significant impact. Amid all the frenetic capers that surrounded and dangerously attracted Aschenbach, in his desperate search to find out the truth of the cholera outbreak in Venice, he encounters (as in Mann's original) an English clerk who is flooded with the visiting population's desperate plans to escape, and who takes him (alone) into his confidence. The scene is quite an extended one, and introduces a rational element which contrasts with the growing hectic character of other events. It feels almost like a spoken exchange, and its (paradoxical) calm and deliberation made it stand out from almost everything surrounding it.

At the heart of the opera is of course Tadzio, the object of Aschenbach's yearning and obsession. The idea of involving a staggeringly talented 'Circus troupe' (the intriguingly named and superlatively talented 'nofitstate', one moreover emanating, like WNO, from South Wales), seemed a fascinating and daring one. The athletics of the entire ensemble - the endlessly active and astonishingly talented, mobile and flexible Tadzio (Antony César) above all, but also what was either the members of his family (largely female) or not, each with her own creative part, and his muscular close friend Jaschiu -  brought a freshness and unique vitality to the production (the boys' energies in the initial Britten-Piper conception presented as just dance), was spectacular.

There was a marvellous flair and breathtaking invention to their every set piece (Tom Rack being their guiding Consultant), so that one's eyes were drawn to every twist and turn, every trick, every twirling with hoops, every hanging in the air - a truly amazing kaleidoscope and unbelievable engineering of the human body's possibilities. This was a superlative feast, at every turn.  


And not surprisingly, this gorgeous display is the thing that holds Aschenbach's rapt attention.

If there is a beauty to Tadzio that beams through at every stage, it is this very physical display. His relationship to the writer hinges upon their very separation; and that is as it must be. It was partly why Britten and Myfanwy Piper settled on making the boy a dancer: thus Tadzio exists on another plane, in a world with its own very energetic interactions quite different from the staid self-isolation of a study bound author.  

So much, so well. But if there is a drawback in whisking the desired creature ('I love you') on to a different planet - and the antics of the acrobats were simply phenomenal - almost any direct connection between Tadzio and Aschenbach is almost irrevocably - if maybe rightly - riven.

There is a moment latterly when Olivia Fuchs boldly inveigles her main character to approach the lying boy - I've seen this risked most seductively between Quint and Miles in The Turn of the Screw - and almost touch him, only for the moment to be lost when the boy inadvertently wakes and exits. Equally, when Tadzio and Jaschiu are earthbound rather than trapeze-soaring, the latter (in almost exactly the same spot onstage) rolls on top of and kisses his friend seemingly on the lips, witnessed of course, tragically jealously, by Aschenbach.  

Visconti's Tadzio (Björn Andresen) in the film is much more accessible - for some too salacious - so that the moments of even passing momentary encounter between him and Aschenbach (quite frequent) come across as all the more tantalising. It was notable how powerful were the brief moments when Fuchs placed her two protagonists simply facing each other across an empty stage (near the end, especially).  

These inactive instants were as highly charged as anything. In other words, although the gymnastics were what enthralled all the audience around me, in some ways the aeronautics took over, at the expense of all else. Aschenbach became obsessed not by Tadzio's beauty, which is what he should be, but by the beauty of the acrobatics: something more neuter than human.  

As always, the singing and sheer power of the WNO chorus was not just impressive but even shattering. Whether amassed somewhat statically at the back of the stage - and there are a huge number of them to get onstage - or cleverly interweaving in interactions devised by Fuchs, they have an important role (more than I recall) in lifting Death in Venice way beyond the vocal limits of Britten's chamber operas. Together with the sensational climaxes Hussain drew from, in later cases, especially the strings of the dazzling orchestral forces, all this is what lifts this work into the realms of a mesmerising, full-blown opera. One was endlessly enticed by everything about it; gripped by the unyielding intensity; utterly overawed.

Roderic Dunnett



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