Death in Venice, Britten

Hamburgische Staatsoper

20th April, 2009

Writing about writing has always presented certain challenges to the dramatist; as a Hollywood producer said once, “No one wants to see a movie about quill pens.” Britten’s Death in Venice, then, is an inherently difficult piece to bring to life on the stage: how to present the protagonist (an author) who is devoted to the life of the mind and the denial of the body, in an art form that is fundamentally physical, sensual? Ramin Gray’s new production of the work at the Hamburgische Staatsoper does not solve these problems, nor does it really try to. What he gives us is an essentially straightforward telling of the tale, albeit with very classy choreography (by Thom Stuart, beautifully executed by Gabriele Frola as Tadzio) and an effectively spare, elegant set. What is missing is any real drama, the relentless heartbeat of the piece. In trying to be true to Aschenbach’s removed perspective, Gray’s choices - especially as reflected in Michael Schade’s proficient but emotionally cautious performance – resulted in a somewhat static, underenergized show that was only ever fleetingly gripping.

Jörg Landsberg

In theory, the director’s setting of the show in the decade of its conception - the 1970’s – could provide an illuminating context in which to explore the opera’s theme of (homo-)sexual repression and expression. In this world, Aschenbach could be confronted not only with the sensual openness of the Mediterranean South, but with the previously unimaginable freedoms of the next generation, as well as the looming consequences of those freedoms (it’s almost impossible to view the grotesque decay of the “elderly fop” or the looming cholera outbreak without the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s coming to mind). Yet the transgressive sexual energy that we associate with that decade was muted at best: the men’s pants were frankly not tight enough; the gay-ness of many characters, especially the Dionysian lot portrayed by baritone Nmon Ford (though sung with stolid commitment), was so subtle as to be unclear if they were meant to be gay at all, or even why they would be provocative or threatening enough to gain Aschenbach’s notice.

I did appreciate the breezy costuming (by Kandis Cook) of the holidaying families, which had a Stepfordish (à la the original 1975 version) quality that seemed to describe their distance from Aschenbach as well as their homogeneity as members of decent heterosexual society. These costumes also interacted well with the very salient (and silent) wind machines placed on the otherwise bare set, and which were a key element of the production.

I, for one, did not mind the lack of a representative set, and found the sand, sea, and sky-colored platforms, scrims, and veils (designed by Jeremy Herbert) to be successfully evocative of both the landscape and of Aschenbach’s increasingly over-exposed state. It felt bleak, it felt hot, there was nowhere to hide. The jellyfish-like, descending column of black veils (which brought to mind the terrifyingly demonic hot-air balloon in Mastroianni’s 1990 film Stanno Tutti Bene), used to express his agoraphobia and the literal poisoning of the air, was also quite effective.

I also appreciated the way that the blankness of the set forced the viewer to fill in the gaps and to mentally construct the settings of the scenes before him, thus recreating the very nature of Aschenbach’s delusions, of a “love” and a “relationship” that are in essence wholly imaginary.

The orchestra, under the baton of Simone Young, played admirably; the string section especially captured Britten’s ephemeral gestures with an organic unity. The percussion (as well as the chorus) was somewhat underenergized, however, and could have done more at moments to bring out the primal edginess that underlies the glittering surface of the score.

As I mentioned in my opening paragraph, the same could be said of the show’s lead, tenor Michael Schade, whose voice exhibited a pleasingly lyrical quality and a technical variety of colors; but these came across more as effects (or, affects) than as genuine expressions of a fleshed-out dramatic persona. He looked the part, and was somewhat convincing in Aschenbach’s state of illness, even employing a kind of Parkinsonian tremor, but due to pasty diction and a one-note emotional state of ponderous self-loathing, we felt little of Aschenbach’s passion or genius.

David DQ Lee as the figure of Apollo made a striking appearance and sang with an eloquent grace, even as the “Games of Apollo” section of the opera is wearyingly over-long. If not for the stunning beauty of the show’s other lead, the boy Tadzio, performed with mesmerizing ease and grace by Gabriele Frola (aided by a spirited bunch of child playmates), this scene, as with much of the opera, would lapse into a self-indulgent blandness. But Frola is ultimately the saving grace of this production. He migrates effortlessly in and out of stylized choreography and awkward adolescence, and manages to perfectly walk the line between a sly self-awareness and the guilelessness of youth. We can’t take our eyes off of him, and this is how it should be. And so Dionysius indeed wins in the end: for all of the art and artifice of Britten’s opera, the flowery language and fluttering costumes, the one thing that truly moves us in this show is the simple beauty of a young man. We all fall in love with him a little; the shortcoming of this production is that we are unable to journey beyond that into Aschenbach’s world of obsession and suffering. We witness the spectacle of his demise but never fully engage with it, and so when he ends up a piece of flotsam on the beach, we shrug our shoulders, as indifferent as Tadzio or the strolling families. An interesting stance philosophically, perhaps, but it doesn’t make for a great night at the opera.

Bottom line: a show that speaks to the head, not the heart.


Georges Briscot



Production Credits

Director: Ramin Gray
Conductor: Simone Young
Set: Jeremy Herbert
Costumes: Kandis Cook
Choreography: Thom Stuart

Gustav Aschenbach: Michael Schade
Tadzio: Gabriele Frola
The Traveller: Nmon Ford
Voice of Apollo: David DQ Lee
Lido Boatman/ Clerk/ Hotel Waiter: Moritz Gogg
Russian Mother/ Strolling Player: Miriam Gordon-Stewart
French Girl/ Lace-Seller: Trine Wilsberg Lund
Newspaper Seller: Vida Mikneviciute
Russian Nanny/ Begger: Deborah Humble
Hotel Porter/ 3rd Gondolier: Benjamin Hulett
2nd American/ Glass Maker/ Strolling Player: Jun-Sang Han
Ship’s Steward/ Polish Father/ 2nd Gondolier: Hee-Saup Yoon
Russian Father/ Guide in Venice: Wilhelm Schwinghammer
German Father/ Retsuarant Waiter/ Priest: Kyung-Il Ko
German Mother, French Mother, Danish Lady,
1st Gondolier, 1st American: Soloists from the Hamburgische Staatsoper Chorus