Garsington Opera at Wormsley has achieved some sort of artistic milestone with a near-perfect new production of Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice. Based on the richly autobiographical novella by Thomas Mann, converted into a spare libretto by Myfanwy Piper (whose painter husband, John Piper did the original 1973 sets), the opera is a curiosity, with only one major singing role – but it’s a killer. Gustav von Aschenbach, a celebrated, but blocked German novelist who goes to Venice to get his mojo back, performs in virtually every scene, until he slumps, dead, in his deckchair. He’s succumbed to the Asian cholera that is plaguing Venice, and a tenor with less stamina than Garsington’s Paul Nilon could be excused for being exhausted by the marathon.
Mann’s tale, which the boy-loving Britten found extra-sympathetic, was itself a sort of chronicle of coming out, based on events that actually happened to the bisexual German writer. At his hotel on the Lido, Aschenbach sees a Polish family, mother, governess, two daughters and a son, and is struck by the beauty of the blond boy. Tadzio. The Britten/Piper solution to the problem of needing so many juvenile voices was to make all the family dancers – reverting to an earlier style of opera.
As the other singing roles are not enormous, it makes good sense, as director Paul Curran does at Garsington, to treat the dance as an equal element of the show, and here choreographer Andreas Heise has created a spectacle that is both gorgeous and drives the narrative. It helps, of course, that Tadzio is played by Celestin Boutin, who has the looks of Mann’s imagined boy (though he is a few years post-adolescence and a foot or to taller) and whose athletic dancing is the equivalent of Paul Nilon’s singing. There are five other young male dancers, including Jaschiu (Chris Agius Darmanin), Tadzio’s wrestling-on-the-beach friend, and they are all splendid to look at in their one-piece bathing costumes as well as strong, vigorous and lithe. But Boutin is a real marvel, with the high leaps and extension I associate with the young Nureyev, and genuine acting ability. His Tadzio connected with Aschenbach with a kind of electricity that meant that, though they never speak, a current flowed between them, so that you felt that Tadzio was always aware of the writer’s presence, whether he looked in his direction or not.
In the Strolling Players scene the topless boys don skirts and wigs and form a sinister conga-line and for a moment do a demented Busby Berkeley routine, high kicking with two facing one way, and two the other, before orgiastic proceedings that no one seems to notice, though most of the cast are on the stage. Praise, too, for the female dancers (not forgetting the graceful two children): Georgie Rose Connolly as the governess, and especially Nina Goldman as the Polish mother (the Lady in Pearls), whose striking profile is perfect for designer Kevin Knight’s gold-pleated costume in the scene with Tom Verney’s slightly disturbing countertenor Apollo.
Knight’s very simple designs pay homage to an adopted Venetian, Fortuny. There is a simple painted backdrop, sometimes representing the lagoon as seen from the Grand Hotel des Bains on the Lido and sometimes showing a distant landscape of Venice. Most of the scenic work, though, is done by sheer white curtains with pleating à la Fortuny, made translucent or opaque by Bruno Poet’s mood-shifting lighting.
Besides the unforced melancholy of his tenor voice (in the role created by Peter Pears), Paul Nilon’s dramatic triumph is that he somehow keeps Aschenbach’s dignity, even when he sees the “Games of Apollo’ – the boys playing on the beach, with Tadzio winning the “pentathlon.” Though he finally realises that he loves Tadzio and admits it out loud, Nilon doesn’t makes him a foolish old man; and he even manages to keep a straight face after the barber has painted it with rouge. Even while in pursuit of this blond, god-like, stunningly steatopygous boy, Nilon’s gestures remain refined, his posture polite, as befits a well-bred German middle-aged “master writer.”
Steuart Bedford, who conducted at Garsington, also presided at the original Snape Maltings production on 16 June 1973. I’d be surprised if any aspect of the original, including the orchestra was better. In the early scene with the Traveller Britten’s percussion effects were so startling that I felt I was hearing dozens of tympani, and later the other tuned percussion instruments made you feel as close to them in the wonderful, intimate Wormsley auditorium, as you were to the woodwinds, basses and cellos. By the time of the potentially tedious reflections on Plato’s Phaedrus, we were as involved with the orchestra as we were with Aschenbach’s dramatic plight.
This Death in Venice didn’t just look good: it was one of those rare experiences where movement, drama and music combined to give you pleasure, move you, and make you think about abstract questions in a most remarkably concrete way. Bravo.