English National Opera’s revival of Deborah Warner’s exquisite production of Benjamin Britten’s final opera is a masterclass in creating something accessible out of source material that can only be described as forbidding. A number of references have made reference to the austerity of Britten’s score but Edward Gardner’s conducting, allied to Warne’s vision, gives the piece a lightness of touch that it is impossible to avoid being drawn in to Britten’s deft recasting of Thomas Mann’s novella.
Whilst Death in Venice would be seen as something for Britten aficionado’s only, the sheer excellence of the production again casts into question the reasoning behind booking the revival for so few performances. If the ENO truly wants to widen its audience base, and encourage people to see operas outside of their comfort zone, then they have to allow people the chance to roll-up on the basis of reviews. However once again when the reviews went to print there were less than five performances remaining; it seems unlikely a hit will rarely cross over into the mainstream with this kind of scheduling.
It was ever thus, and carping should not distract from the magnificence of the production. Aschenbach is a demanding lead; on-stage for almost the entire running time and with the lion share of the libretto there is little scope for variation in tone. However, John Graham-Hall holds the stage with an acutely painful performance of an author dragged from an ascetic dedication to his craft as he becomes increasingly besotted with Tadzio, the son of a Polish family who shares his hotel.
Sam Zaldivar’s Tadzio gives a silent performance of extreme sensual grace and beauty. Kim Brandstrup’s choreography allows Zaldivar to imbue Tadzio with a lithe naturalness that flows through the character and counterbalances Aschenbach’s increasingly halting vocal. Zaldivar has a fluidity of motion that conveys a come hither playfulness that never fully escapes a sense of the mocking. For Graham-Hall’s Aschenbach, this noxious combination, reflected in the increasingly unhealthy Venetian air, comes to a head with the explosive ‘I love you’ that brings the interval on a wonderfully dramatic high.
For inspiration Warner appears to have sprinkled the fairy dust of Peter Pan over Tadzio. This is most evident in the final image of the play – with Aschenbach sprawled on the stage, Tadzio is seen in silhouette framed against a huge moon. It is a most fertile avenue for Warner to explore, as Mann’s novella explores the relationship of an author’s increasing obsession, chaste or otherwise, with a young boy. Written in 1912 and based on a real life child, it is hard not to think of J.M Barrie’s creation of Peter and Wendy in 1904, and his own questionable attachment to the Llewellyn Davies children.
Britten himself cannot have been unaware by the allusion when writing the opera. It is his final piece and one that wrestles with questions that, to his biographers, Britten had been troubled with for much of his life. It is a story that does not attempt to paint its lead as hero or anti-hero, but rather as a flawed human that is worthy of, at best, pity.
Death in Venice is a story of how obsession leads to tragedy, but even in this it is an indirect tragedy. Aschenbach dies not because of Tadzio – it is not a recasting of the Narcissus and Echo myth– but because his obsession blinds him to the wider danger of the foul air. Peter Pan is an appropriate representation as he is emblematic of an intoxicating sense of the eternal. However this eternality can never be shared and those around him – no matter how they chase it – are destined to grow old and eventually die. .
Peter Pan naturally echoes Pan, the Greek god. It is unclear whether Barrie overtly acknowledged the reference point but Pan had been revived by the Romantics by the time that Peter Pan was created. They share a mischievous spirit born out of a desire to play that can transcend into a darker malevolence; it is something that we see in Pan’s actions of those that refuse his love, and it is echoed in Peter’s attempt to make Wendy believe that her family have forgotten her.
Tadzio seems to share some of this spirit. He relishes the solitude – often seen shunning the company of others to walk alone along the pier – but desires the spotlight and the adulation of the crowd. Tadzio is also aware of this effect on Aschenbach; during the cabaret scenes we see him mirrors him from across the stage, always keeping the maximum distance from the obsessed author but in a manner that gives the sense that Aschenbach ought to follow him.
Pan, according to Plutarch, was one of only two Greek gods to actually die. It was a fact that was taken up and promulgated by Christian sects into the 18th century as an allegory about the end of an order and the coming of a new. This reverberates through Peter Pan, which at its core is about the inability to ever go back, and seems to have a place in interpreting Britten’s own understanding of Mann’s novella.
If Britten, as has been suggested, was wrestling with his own complex feelings about pubescent boys and committing to staging at a time when he knew he was reaching the end of his own life then it feels entirely apposite to reinvest his Death in Venice with an allusion to another of the writers who history has cast, to quote Auden, as having an affection to the ‘sexless and innocent’.
Warner’s production is triumphant and glorious, and it does not shy away from the distasteful Aschenbach’s growing obsession but what is seen is not one of lechery and pervasion but of pity and anguish. Britten has shone as a flawed human, as only he understands humanity to be flawed, and has dared the audience to cast aspersion of chaste desire.