21 MARCH 1992, Page 45


Death in Venice (Covent Garden)

Ghosts from the past

Robin Holloway

Any new production of Britten's oper- atic testament has to face some substantial ghosts. Above all, the overwhelming indi- viduality of Peter Pears in a long, demand- ing part (Aschenbach never leaves the stage), written exactly around his voice and presence, dedicated to him as the last trib- ute of a lifetime's work and love. While the ghost of Visconti's dreadful film is easily laid, that of Thomas Mann's novella which inspired both film and opera cannot be ignored. This dense and subtle text has, to become an operatic libretto, necessarily been emptied out and simplified, some- times to the point of incomprehensibility. This loss is not always repaid by a corre- sponding gain in musical richness, especial- ly where it matters most: the central character's new range of feelings opened up, to his alarm and surprise, by the beauty of a boy. For the strongest element in this score of conscious summation and farewell is the presence of ghosts from Britten's past; not least Mahler, who had figured so fully in the earliest period of his mastery, and is now evoked at the end in an associa- tion as delicate as that in Visconti's film, and Ken Russell's parody of it, was blatant.

And the ghost of his sexuality; the open secret which, when still closed, had fuelled such masterpieces as The Turn of the Screw and Billy Budd with their powerfully implic- it erotic charge. The fears with which musi- cians reacted to the news that Britten was handling a story bound to make his subject explicit were not so much prudish as artis- tic. As in the comparable cases of Henry James and E.M. Forster (respectively source and co-librettist of the two earlier operas I've mentioned) the strength of this tight-lipped utterance lay in the fine con- trol with which the subject wasn't uttered. These were the moeurs of his time and he worked well within them.

Prudishness, certainly, was misplaced; the presentation of Aschenbach's decline and fall as a stylised battle between the Apollo and Dionysus within him couldn't be more decorous and tactful. But the con- cern on artistic grounds reveals just this very tact to be the main cause of the work's still seeming so pale and starved. Repres- sion produced richness; explicitness, pro- ducing only good taste, fails to register the depths of the emotions involved. In other words Britten's music is not explicit enough!

The ultimate bedrock of all opera is a beautiful female voice singing its heart out to express love, anguish, jealousy, tender- ness, joy. At least in Billy Budd the all-male cast do actually all sing. With Death in Venice the erotic element which is Britten's slender version of the central fact upon which all opera bases its appeal devolves into a figure who only dances and mimes. This characteristically brilliant solution to the practical problem of realising Tadziu's other-worldliness is also a sacrifice too great for the work to bear. Aschenbach could go on about Eros as long as Venice remains above water-level, but Eros is absent from the music until the wonderful closing passage when, exhausted by his pas- sion and hounded by his plaguey double, Aschenbach swoons with agonised volup- tuousness into the embrace of death.

This was the second of the two outstand- ing moments in Philip Langridge's beauti- ful assumption of Pears's role (the other, rather similar, is when the writer yields up his scruples to acquiesce in wherever his infatuation will take him). Not even Pears could impart interest to the jejune reflec- tions upon art and life with their deliber- ately flat recitative accompanied only by piano. Again this is the obverse of another brilliant formal innovation, the way that the opera's action is entirely hung throughout upon the tenor line. The scenes fade imperceptibly, or sharply start to life, in and out of the single stream of conscious- ness at the work's centre, with a fluidity of movement as unprecedented as it is mas- terly. Another marvellous idea (taking here a hint from the novella) is to embody all the variously sinister, malign or tempting figures who ultimately represent the dark forces of Dionysus and the plague itself in a single performer. This role is therefore almost as important as Aschenbach's and the more demanding for having to take in so many quick changes. Alan Opie sang and acted each vignette to perfection.

Somehow neither John Piper's hazy splotches nor the blow-ups of Fortuny's Venice photographs suggested so much sea, sky, beach, then narrow alleys with sudden squares and the single burst of San Marco interior as had the tight and largely abstract production by the Glyndebourne Touring company, another daunting ghost not effaced here. Britten's miraculous conjuring-up of vast spaces by means of offstage voices was unmagical, and the invisible sounds of Apollo's guidance and Dionysus's temptations were rendered pro- saic by a sort of public address system.

The orchestra, on which the work's atmospheric suggestiveness depends most, lacked under Steuart Bedford both taut- ness and the pale warmth of colour where- by Britten, evoking the beauty of the view from the Lido, recalls in this 'late' work the fuller palette of his prime. The ballet of boys, though an improvement upon the original choreography of 1973, still called to mind a prep-school sports day re-created that night in the classics master's wet dreams. Colin Graham's production used the revolve to telling effect both for crowd scenes in hotel foyer and pedestrian city, and for the more intimate scenes between Tadziu, Aschenbach and his evil genius. But nothing seen or heard really stirred the depths until that beautiful last minute of Aschenbach's death, and I still cannot decide how much this coldness is owing to a damp evening at the opera and how much is inherent in the opera itself.

Robin Holloway and Oliver Knussen are Radio 3 'Composers of the Week' for the mornings of 23-27 March and the evenings of 30 March-3 April.

Not explicit enough: Philip Langridge as von Aschenbach and Giacomo Ciriaci as Tadzio