Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice returns to the Royal Opera in a new production by David McVicar, and already this brief run of performances is sold out. First performed by the Royal Opera in October 1973, after opening at Snape Maltings that summer, Britten’s hugely expressive music combines a libretto, skilfully distilled from Thomas Mann’s novella, with choreography that brings together the Apollonian world of physical beauty and action with the Dionysian yearnings of Gustav von Aschenbach. This famous, though fictional, German writer is a creative and self-disciplined man who goes south to Venice and never returns.
The opposition of Apollonian and Dionysian forces embodied in the novel are musically connected in what became Britten’s final opera, and the choreography deftly contrasts the elegance of the hotel on the Lido and stillness of the sea beyond, with the games of the boys as they play on the beach.
All of this is watched over by the writer who is in his early fifties, an age at which Mahler, whom Thomas Mann considered the first really great man he had ever met, died. Yearning for the beautiful Polish boy Tadzio, yet unable to communicate with him except by glances, von Aschenbach is then stymied in his attempt to leave when his luggage vanishes, and he resigns himself to staying.
It’s only later that he learns of the impending cholera epidemic that will cut the city off from the rest of the world. Eventually, freed from the torment of yearning by the release of death, we see him asleep.
A strong sense of unreality hovers over this work, enhanced by the shifting pillars of Vicki Mortimer’s designs, from the mysterious gondolier who conveys the author to his hotel on the Lido, to the multiple characters superbly sung and portrayed by Gerald Finley, celebrating 30 years performing with the company. And throughout it all, Mark Padmore as von Aschenbach, ever-present on stage, conveys the feeling that he is an observer in his own drama, singing the principal role with strength, sensitivity and astonishing stamina.
There is a beautifully compelling presence too, by the up-and-coming Royal Ballet star Leo Dixon as Tadzio, with Elizabeth McGorian as his mother, and Tim Mead a striking vocal presence as Apollo, amid a full cast of minor characters.
Under the baton of Richard Farnes this was a musical treat. Many will wish they had booked tickets when these were still available.
Continues until December 6 — details here.