Britten: Mann and Boy

Death in Venice – English National Opera, Colliseum

English National Opera’s revival of Deborah Warner’s exquisite production of Benjamin Death in Venice - English National OperaBritten’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.

The Pan-like Tadzio in Death in VeniceFor 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.

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Peter and Alice and a whole lack of wonder

Peter and Alice – Noel Coward Theatre, until 01 June 2013

It all works so well on paper: Michael Grandage and Christopher Oram as director and set designer; John Logan behind the script; Ben Wishaw and Dame Judi Dench heading the cast. If any more of a hook was needed to guarantee an audience, the plot concerns Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland (or at least their real-life inspirations).

What could possibly go wrong?Peter and Alice - Ben Wishaw and Judi Dench

In some ways very little.

The major problem is that very little goes right.

For the audience, Peter and Alice is an almost pitch-perfect study in the average, the mediocre, the reassuringly dull. No doubt the brigades that travel on mass from the Home Counties, that can afford to sit in the stalls, that buy a programme, a drink and an ice-cream, that keep the West End at near maximum-capacity and that are, without doubt, vital to the on-going vitality of the London theatre scene, are going to be satisfied.

However Charles Dodson and J.M Barrie would be appalled. Not necessarily by the character assassinations perpetrated on them by Logan, in scenes that have a loose connection to the truth, but certainly by the sheer lack of imagination displayed by everyone involved in the production. Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland are two of the finest examples of the flexibility of the adult mind; the sheer imaginative range of Carroll’s wordplay and of Barrie’s adventuring is a joy that has not receded in over one hundred years.

Peter and Alice fails to capture one tenth of this joy, this anarchic free-spiritedness, in one hundred minutes.

Reading the description of Barrie’s original production of Peter and Wendy one learns that Tinkerbell was created by the expedient use of a mirror to reflect a light onto the stage so that it would seem to dart and fly. This illusion, using the simplest mechanism imaginable, holds more wonder than the entire po-faced philosophising of Logan’s script.

To begin on the positives; Christopher Oram’s set is a delight. Opening on a musty office, it unfolds to a reveal the reassuringly sight of a chequer-board set and instantly recognisable Tenniel-inspired drawings of familiar characters. Given Peter Pan’s origins on stage it was a nice touch to reflect this in the use of classic flats that drop from the sky and retain a resolute two-dimensionality that highlights the artifice that lies behind theatre, and that means it will only ever be a simulacrum of reality.

Ben Wishaw and Judi Dench are perfectly adequate, and one hopes that, given this was a preview, there is a certain vitality that is still to come as they feel their way into the roles. Dench has a commanding presence that cannot help but be transferred to her characters – it is hard to imagine her playing a particularly vulnerable part. Her Liddell has developed a cast-iron exterior to the pressures of the world, and this contrasts well with Wishaw’s more vulnerable Peter Davies, a man who has not come to terms with the world as it is and the man who he will always be.

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