by Tom Sutcliffe
Death in Venice, Benjamin Britten’s last opera, was always a special case – special because written for the composer’s beloved (and habitually unfaithful) partner Peter Pears, but also special because of the composer’s complicated interest in boys and their pre-pubescent voices. Britten loved boys, but never showed the slightest inclination to abuse them. It was as if it were almost a kind of incapable parental love, born from some fundamental regret which probably was the engine that powered Britten’s genius. Think of The Turn of the Screw with its closely related material and topics, handled however so very differently.
Opera is a confessional artform – but not generally the composer’s confession. Rather it depends on the wind of melody to draw from its characters not only their essence but also the things they need to tell us in the audience, the things these figures on stage in their drama care about most. What the new Royal Opera production by Sir David McVicar manages to do is to be completely serious about the subject matter: Thomas Mann or his alter ego Aschenbach (a great author) facing up to himself because he feels himself falling in illicit and inconceivably impossible love with a young man Tadzio – in this case older, larger, and more starry and expressive as a dancer than any predecessor that I can think of in earlier stagings I have seen.
And yet McVicar specifically enables Mark Padmore as Aschenbach to confess (to us audience as well as to himself) and at the same time to accept the utter fatal morbid hopelessness of the whole thing. Because Tadzio in this wonderfully realised staging is never really affected by the status of being Aschenbach’s love object any more than a beautiful horse would have been. There is no even embryonic consent, there is no hint of paedophilia. The Tadzio (Leo Dixon, a Royal Ballet First Artist) is entirely his own person, and dances, dances, dances, physically adult, like a star sportsman, sublimely capable of being separate and independent, demonstrating unattainable objectivity which has nothing to do with sexuality. Dixon’s work is stunning and so basic for the vision in McVicar’s brilliant piece of stagecraft which is in fact breathtakingly uncamp.
And serious. Have there been many productions as complicated as this at Covent Garden with so many figures on stage? The sets by Vicki Mortimer move back and forth across the stage, enclosing and unfolding spaces, reminding us of the ever-present sea and sun, giving us plenty of that vital shade which Venice demands, choreographing too the gondola (oversize, almost, one suspects) taking Ashenbach away and bringing him back, fiddly and tiresome as he is, unable to decide, the victim of this late and ultimately fatal whim. Lynne Page, whose actual choreography of the movement is so crucial to this extraordinary production, in effect has had to invent and pursue her art almost all the time, almost throughout – with the mostly adolescent games of play-fighting lads that flow like a fascinating ballet from scene to scene. Of course there still are the episodes involving the wonderful Gerald Finley as assorted others (fop, traveller, barber, etc) which provide interludes with Tadzio absent. And there is the vision of Apollo, powerfully sung by the bearded, heroic figure of Tim Mead, whose countertenor is more powerful and right in this role (thank to his acting’s assumption about what is going on) than any predecessor’s.
Richard Farnes’ conducting explores in detail and with delicacy this amazing score, which proclaims Britten’s genius perhaps more than any earlier work – now freed as he surely was by the sense of his impending mortality. And what genius also lies in Myfanwy Piper’s extraordinary libretto.
Playing and singing all through, and Paule Constable’s impeccable lighting, cannot be overpraised. Padmore as Aschenbach is so straight, so truthful, so pure in the way he attends to his thoughts and ours, and the words they take. The crucial still centre of this theatrical wonder. I have not been gripped by a Royal Opera production as I was by this for a very long time. A sell-out, apparently. It must be brought back very soon.