By Rebecca Schmid
BERLIN — Forget the dancers. Never mind the plot of the final scene. And why not cast the entire action within neon green walls? The Deutsche Oper continued its Britten cycle on March 19 with Death in Venice in a new production staged by Graham Vick. While the production’s musical quality and direction of the characters are beyond reproach, several deviations from the libretto are more gratuitous than revealing, and the set by Stuart Nunn is a major disappointment.
Britten’s last opera, based on the Thomas Mann novella Der Tod in Venedig, is a personal reflection on art and life in which the composer distills an enormous stylistic palette into a clear narrative device. The protagonist is the writer Gustav von Aschenbach, who sings recitative-style monologues to twelve-tone piano accompaniment, while the adolescent boy he falls in love with, Tadzio – who drives him away from Apollonian order and toward the death-driven, ecstatic world of Dionysus after arriving in Venice – is represented by tuned percussion and other timbres with an eastern or otherworldly flavor.
Music director Donald Runnicles leads the house orchestra in a balanced, refined performance, with appropriately transparent strings, snarky woodwinds, and lean but nuanced phrasing. Only in the interlude between the final two scenes could the brass have been clearer.
The cast, starring Paul Nilon as Aschenbach and house ensemble member Seth Carico as the chameleon-like sidekick who appears as everyone from the traveler to Dionysus, also leaves little to be desired.
One of the strongest gestures in Vick’s production is to place a piano onstage, emphasizing the contrast between Aschenbach’s isolated, disciplined world and the disorderly passion to which he succumbs. The presence of death, however, is emphasized ad absurdum. The curtain opens to a funeral, with a giant portrait that may represent Aschenbach himself. The chairs on which the choir sits will serve to illustrate everything from a boat to a restaurant.
An oversized bouquet of roses creates a hint of surrealism, but if the idea is to enter “a dream or a process in Aschenbach’s mind” – as the director said in an interview with the Berliner Morgenpost – then the aesthetic could have been pushed further. Instead, funereal symbols like an altar and a wreath of flowers inch toward the mundane.
The eyes are literally strained by the second act, given the neon green walls in which the entire action takes place. Nevertheless, ensemble scenes – such as the performances of the strolling players outside the hotel and the dream in which Aschenbach is torn between the voices of Apollo and Dionysus – receive powerful treatment.
Another poignant scene emerges in the first act, when Tadzio (played by Rauand Taleb) and his gaggle of friends fall lifelessly on the rose bouquet following the sweeping, tonal music that indicates the view from Aschenbach’s window. In the absence of trained dancers, however, their movement in other scenes is too disorderly for Britten’s painstaking score.
Most frustrating, however, is the closing scene, in which the adolescent beauty – rather than returning to Poland with his family, as per the libretto – dies before Aschenbach’s eyes. The viewer is left wondering if the protagonist is a ghost, a dreamer, or a figment of the imagination.
Nilon invested his performance with the introspection and tortured passion that this role demands, giving a tender, nuanced account of his final soliloquy, “Does beauty lead to wisdom, Phaedrus?” He did not always ride above the orchestra when it was in full force, however, and his generally understated manner was out of balance with the more exuberant thespianism of Carico.
The young bass-baritone struggled slightly with the falsetto writing of the elderly fop, but, blessed with a booming, rich voice, brought the right touch of caricature to the roles of the hotel manager and barber. Carico also transformed into a saucy leader of the players – parading around in sequined heels – and a seductive, demonic Dionysus.
Another house ensemble member, countertenor Tai Oney, was equally arresting, bringing a radiant tone and magnanimous presence the role of Apollo. Alexandra Hutton, as the strawberry vendor, and Andrew Dickinson, as the hotel porter, further deserve mention. The house chorus gave a polished, compelling performance.
It was difficult to reconcile the high musical standards with a production that seemed to spurn any sense of Apollonian beauty, diluting both Mann’s original novella and Britten’s opera into a one-dimensional reflection on mortality. And given the fact that Death in Venice had returned to the Deutsche Oper for the first time in 40 years, one wonders why the resources were not invested in a more elaborate – but most of all, tasteful – stage design.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide, and other publications.