Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff *****

Benjamin Britten’s final opera is a true summation of his life’s work, a life he knew was coming to an end as he struggled determinedly to complete the piece. This was a deeply-felt love-offering to his partner Peter Pears, and so perfectly is the writing tailored to that tenor’s unique vocal qualities that subsequent performers have found the task daunting. Not so Mark le Brocq, whose assumption of the role in this Welsh National Opera production grows movingly through this lengthy portrayal of the moral and intellectual disintegration of Gustav von Aschenbach, become creatively arid as the protagonist writer in the Thomas Mann novella which is the basis of Myfanwy Piper’s adroit libretto.

The opera also bravely confronts Britten’s own homoeroticism, not least when roused by young boys. Aschenbach is increasingly obsessed by the beauty of the young Tadziu, a fellow-guest with his Polish family at the Hotel des Bains on the Venice Lido, and he employs all kinds of self-deceptions to justify his vain pursuit.

But not only is Death in Venice a confession of Britten’s own tormented libido, it is also a wonderful compendium of many of his musical fingerprints through such a tragically short life. Here we have the Schoenbergian sprechgesang to which he so often covertly resorted, here we have the three levels of musical colour (piano accompaniment underlying Aschenbach’s lengthy recitatives, percussion-punctuated gamelan glittering the allure of Tadziu, full orchestra for the other characters – of which there are many, all ably undertaken by members of the WNO Chorus), a technique we had admired in the War Requiem of 1962, and here we have choral dances punctuating stage action as in Gloriana of the Coronation Year 1953. We also hear, as the opera approaches its end, Aschenbach’s broken-hearted death very near, the sweetly astringent sounds of the music of Alban Berg, with whom Britten would have loved to have studied in his very early days.

This brilliant new production for WNO directed by Olivia Fuchs brings this thoughtful, perhaps over-cerebral opera to absorbing, engaging life, aided by Nicola Turner’s designs, and a wonderful panoply of back-projections where the Lido and La Serenissima lap their enticements as the music sings of gondola-crossings.

And the most wonderful brilliance of all is elevating Britten and Piper’s original casting of Tadziu’s family as dancers to now the dizzy heights of aerial acrobats, the contributions of the deliciously-named No Fit State Circus  punctuating the entire unveiling of this heartbreaking story with soaring, swooping visual commentary.

Antony Cesar’s consummately attractive and mysterious Tadziu is but one of this amazing troupe. He is one of a small handful of other major players supporting  Mark le Brocq’s movingly sustained performance. Alexander Chance’s countertenor as Apollo tries commandingly to return Aschenbach to rigour and discipline, while Roderick Williams is superb, colouring his voice as he conveys the many characters whose blandishments conspire to persuade the hapless Aschenbach to remain in cholera-afflicted Venice.

Leo Hussain conducts with perfectly-paced timing and feel for atmosphere, and the WNO Orchestra plays with subtlety, power, and a genuine feel for colour.

*At Birmingham Hippodrome  May 11 7.30pm.

Christopher Morley


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