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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Death in Venice (1973)
Robert Tear (ten)
Alan Opie (bar)
Michael Chance
Glyndebourne Chorus
London Sinfonietta/Graeme Jenkins
rec 1990, BBC TV - filming location not given
ARTHAUS DVD 100 172 - PAL [138.00]
Crotchet   AmazonUK   AmazonUS

I remember this BBC TV transmission of 1990 well. It brought Britten's last opera of 1973 superbly to life on a small screen at home and made it more convincing than when previously seen in the theatre. Seeing and hearing it again with the technical improvements of DVD and fine stereo sound was a great experience, which kept me riveted to the screen and marvelling anew at the wonderful inventiveness and cohesion of the whole daringly original conception.

It is (well was, certainly) a tricky subject of homo-erotic infatuation set in a Venice of beauty, with picturesque decay and the pervading sweet stench of a spreading cholera epidemic, all suggested brilliantly and with the lightest of touches by the stage and video directors, stage and lighting designers. Finally, and this is its triumph, it is essentially a work of the internal imagination and Robert Tear, in one of the finest assumptions of his career, takes us right into the flawed, troubled heart of this famous writer (the original author Thomas Mann, later linked to Mahler in a famous film of the novella) who in his declining years was questioning his beliefs and moral certainties, his deepest thoughts explored in recitative accompanied by an (unnamed) pianist.

The whole production is a triumph and a pertinent reminder that the Glyndebourne Touring Opera is no second division company sent to the provinces, but one worthy of comparison with any small opera company world-wide. A case of limitations fostering imagination, which in these financially straitened times challenges the costly dominance of the large opera houses.

The cast is a large one, and the opera, which is in 17 continuous scenes divided into two lengthy acts, keeps Tear, who is in superb voice as von Aschenbach, on centre stage throughout. He is supported by Alan Opie in seven cameo character parts of uneasy menace, representing aspects of Dionysus. Michael Chance assumes the mantle of the God Apollo, set apart in gold.

The elegant Polish family's silent boy Tadzio, of convincing beauty in his provocative poses and movements, leads a brilliantly choreographed group of dancers, whose appearances drive the story forward and are far from old time operatic ballet divertissements, once so popular. Tadzio becomes the chief focus of the inexorable capitulation of von Aschenbach's defences against his unacknowledged real self. Their music is a sharply focused development of the much earlier gamelan of 'The Prince of the Pagodas', and is introduced seamlessly.

Realism is not attempted, nor ever missed. The scene changes from gondola and ship, to hotel, beach and barber's shop are suggested economically with unerring, simple strokes. We can smell and feel the decay and infection which traps him and this is counterpointed by the growing acceptance of the voyeuristic compulsion which comes to dominate this haunting Death in Venice.

Balance between singers and the London Sinfonietta is first class and Graeme Jenkins is right inside the score. The text (Myfanwy Piper) is subtle and diction, especially Robert Tear's, good enough to make it reasonable that there are no English subtitles (which I find useful in the theatre even for opera in English). I confess to finding my own concentration heightened by switching on the subtitles in French - but others may think that too eccentric to even try!

If you are a Britten enthusiast but not yet a DVD devotee, this is one to go for - its important balletic component demands to be Seen as well as Heard, and by comparison with this version it simply does not work properly on CD.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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