After four productions over two decades that left me feeling apathetic towards the dying composer and his morbid anti-hero, Deborah Warner’s production at English National Opera has finally made sense of the piece for me. The first half-hour still went on forever, but a combination of foggy colours (designer Tom Pye) and pinpoint pit work (conductor Edward Gardner) finally brought coherence to a piece all too often marred by self-pity.
John Graham-Hall, who is on stage almost throughout, steered clear of pathos in his portrayal of the aging German writer so bedazzled by a Polish boy (Sam Zaldivar) that he dares not approach him. Andrew Shore was camp-it-up Signore-this and Signore-that in all the cameo roles and the ENO chorus revelled in their 1912 summer outfits.
The nub, though, was the pity of it all. Deborah Warner grasped that this is not an opera about a dirty old man ogling a dancing boy. It’s about an artist who knows he is dying and thinks of all the things he has left unrealised. Aschenbach is Benjamin Britten – not the boy-fancier of tabloid legend but the relentless, workaholic maker of a line of new operas that, as he composes this one, he knows has come to an end. That’s when the heart swells and the tears flow.
This was opera at its most grown-up, watched by a packed house aged nine to 90. The short run is now over. I hope they bring it back soon.