For young British conductor Edward Gardner, Benjamin Britten has been the harbinger of premieres, the late English composer ripe with initiations for one of opera's bright stars. The Eton-Cambridge schooled conductor inaugurated his high-profile May 2007 Music Director appointment at the English National Opera with Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice in Deborah Warner's evocative production, which had never been staged in ENO's history. Earlier this month, Gardner made his Italian and La Scala debut with the same production of Britten's last opera. This kid brings the freshness (we interviewed him here in 2009 in case you missed it).
La Scala took a gamble on Britten, as they do here for most works composed to English texts, but Gardner's masterful conducting, Warner's compelling production, and John Graham-Hall's intelligent read of the protagonist converged into a trifecta of aweseomness that made for a stellar night at Milan's Il Piermarini, a packed house greeting Britten's work. The knockout cast and production, solid and seamless, was a perfect marriage of opera's and theater's most enthralling aspects.
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Death in Venice's action opens in the steely suburbs of Munich with German novelist, Gustav von Aschenbach, who craves new landscapes and perspectives, and flees Germany for the Grand Hôtel des Bains on Venice's Lido (which reminded OC of the Delano lobby in South Beach) to find sun and a muse -- the latter which is found in an adolescent Polish boy, Tadzio. An outbreak of cholera should be enough for Aschenbach to abscond to safer shores, but he's fallen in love with the unobtainable youth, and his foolish infatuation and fleeing common sense (along with a luggage mess-up) draws him the death card, a duel between reason and the seduction of the irrational.
Britten was already ill at the time he started writing the opera in 1971, his inspiration found in Thomas Mann's 1912 novella, Der Tod in Venedig, which combines lush landscapes and decaying underbellies in a delicate balance. Directed by Deborah Warner, she fleshed-out Britten's philosophical edict of platonic beauty, unrequited/unobtainable love, and the foolish heart over profound reason into a clear, poetic narrative, convincing and absorbing.
Sets designed by Tom Pye were evocative of Venice's ever-changing light. Abstraction meant no imposing orientalism -- absent were the Byzantine peaks of St Mark's Basilica and Palazzo Ducale's curious façades -- a gondola was the lone manifestation.
Jean Kalman suffused the sets with light from Venice's open sky and thousand canals, so strong that it became a protagonist, dancing on La Scala's creamy ceiling in a reflective, twinkling wash. The sterility and clean swaths of light balanced out the imagined decay of Myfanwy Piper's libretto.
Supers appeared as strolling guests, street vendors, and beach attendants, all set in the early 20th century in Edwardian period costumes in voluminous, lovely summer whites rom costume designer Chloe Obolensky.
Ian Bostridge was slated for the demanding role, but after a chest infection and a doctor's note, British tenor John Graham-Hall stepped in. Always big shoes to fill, Graham-Hall's character was originally written for and played by BB's bb, Peter Pears, in the 1973 Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh premiere. Graham-Hall's acting weight and intelligent introspection left a pensive mark on each word in a gorgeously-expressive read, where a ringing middle voice soared with a lushly-affluent diction. Melodic and light as air in a timeless portrayal. The ambiguous suggestions of Venice's landscape were made visceral by Graham-Hall's excellent acting, at times furiously wiping down his face from Venice's cloying summer humidity with conviction and a moribund weight.
Silent Tadzio was played by Alberto Terribile, agile and magnetic. Peter Coleman-Wright tackled the seven roles with easy transition and gorgeous color, and Iestyn Davies as The Voice of Apollo was stirring.
ENO Music Director Edward Gardner is passionate about Britten (read his exclusive interview with OC here) and his twinkling optimism combined with thumping paces, which brought forth the complex tapestries and gamelanian tones of Britten's score. Always elegant and controlled, Gardner let the woodwind, brass, and percussion soar in a colorful, bright, and idiosyncratic read that drove the narrative. Gardner steered the production through the chaos, chaos and sickness of Britten's la Serenissima with the lightest touch, an undercurrent of ominous and turgid death just hovering below the surface.