Britten - Death in Venice

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday January 18 2009

Conductor: Paul Daniel. Production: Deborah Warner. Sets: Tom Pye. Costumes: Chloë Obolensky. Lighting: Jean Kalman. Choreography: Kim Brandstrup. Gustav von Aschenbach: John Graham-Hall. Traveller, Elderly Fop, Old Gondolier, Hotel Manager, Hotel Barber, Leader of the Players, Voice of Dionysus: Andrew Shore. Voice of Apollo: William Towers. Hotel Porter: Peter Van Hulle. Strawberry Seller: Anna Dennis. Strolling Player: Donal Byrne. Lace Seller: Constance Novis. Glass Maker: Richard Edgar-Wilson. Beggar Woman: Madeleine Shaw. English Clerk: Jonathan Gunthorpe. Restaurant Waiter: Benoît De Leersnyder. Guide in Venice: Charles Johnston. La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra & Chorus.

No wonder Deborah Warner’s ENO production of Death in Venice, now showing in Brussels, has been described in the press as a triumph and said to have “dazzled” Belgian opera-goers. It is a model of no-nonsense stagecraft and one of the most convincing stagings I’ve seen even at La Monnaie, where production standards are usually high. By "no-nonsense" I mean simply that Ms Warner doesn’t overlay the work with a “Konzept” to puzzle through, or have puzzling goings-on on stage. Not that I mind an intellectual challenge of that kind provided it’s carried off convincingly; but this was just intelligent, professional, convincing theatre: a story well told. As to stagecraft… Perhaps we’ve got used to opera companies spending fortunes on large, realistic three-dimensional sets. This production (you might say it was the opposite approach to that of a Joël in La Rondine or Engel in Cardillac) was a reminder that as much or more can be done by suggestion.

The stage was mostly bare, with a low “horizon” and two or three slanting poles at the rear under a plain backdrop of “sky” that changed from radiant blue to pale champagne gold to a hazy, sickly yellow as needed. Black strips of floor ran the width of the stage, alternating matt (one of those a boardwalk) and watery gloss. The only sets as such were a realistic, smoking steamer funnel, sliding panels to shut off spaces, billowing white curtains that, with a few potted palms, suggested the hotel, and occasionally the front of a beach hut. The rest was left to faint projections of handwriting or rippling water, marvellous, atmospheric lighting – often from the sides – a blurry suggestion of the Venetian skyline through gauze, a wisp of dry ice to suggest the steamy, pestilential lagoon. In addition to those palms, there were, as required, bench seats on the steamer, luggage, a makeshift stage for the travelling players, sometimes cane chairs and tables set out by the hotel staff. Gondolas were evoked, rather than appearing, by the gondoliers’ rowing movements on the glossy strips of floor while the singers sat, rocking from side to side.

The neatly-tailored period costumes, black, white, cream and grey – and vast, magnificent millinery – were superb and worn with a great deal of chic. The acting was directed down to the last detail, soloists and chorus members. An example: Deborah Warner had Tadzio sit, early in the opera, on the water’s edge, slip off his shoes and pull a splinter from his foot, calling to mind the classical sculpture. That was clever enough, but it was very clever indeed to have him sit again, at other times, and slip his shoes off but not pull out the splinter - just delicately calling to mind the first occurrence without actually repeating it.

The games avoided ridicule – and again called Greece to mind with “Greek-vase” gestures silhouetted black against the golden sky. The ballets were modern, athletic and dovetailed cleverly and naturally into the non-balletic action. Tadzio was not insipid as in the film but a lad with some character, so you could actually believe he won.

John Graham-Hall must, in Aschenbach, have found the role of his life, dramatically and vocally. The cultivated elegance of Bostridge’s timbre, had we had him instead, might have been a distraction, or at any rate put a distance between us and the character. Graham-Hall was convincing throughout, with a great dynamic range and impressively seamless, natural transmissions from full voice to a whispered falsetto. Never having seen this opera on stage, I hadn’t realized how demanding it must be for the tenor, who spends nearly three hours there. At the end, having lived the part, he looked genuinely exhausted as he took the cheers - unaccustomed in Brussels, where audiences are undemonstrative. The rest of the cast were fine and, as it was such a good afternoon, I won’t say (though I thought it) that I’d have liked the brass to be on better form.

The admiration for the music (as little known here as it probably is anywhere) and the production seemed to be unanimous. I heard one white-haired old lady saying, as she left, that she’d shouted “bravo” and wished the producer had been present to take curtain calls. “We could have cheered her as well - for once.”

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