Britten's Death in Venice
The Gramophone Choice
Peter Pears ten Gustav von Aschenbach John Shirley-Quirk bar Traveller, Elderly Fop, Old Gondolier, Hotel Manager, Hotel Barber, Leader of the Players, Voice of Dionysus James Bowman counterten Voice of Apollo Kenneth Bowen ten Hotel Porter Peter Leeming bass Travel Clerk Neville Williams bass-bar Penelope MacKay sop Strolling Players Iris Saunders sop Strawberry-seller English Opera Group Chorus; English Chamber Orchestra / Steuart Bedford
Decca London 425 669-2LH2 (145‘ · ADD · N/T) Recorded 1973. Buy from Amazon
Also available in ‘The Complete Britten Operas, Vol 2’, also containing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Rape of Lucretia, The Turn of the Screw and Gloriana (475 60296CD10 – 10 discs). Buy from Amazon
In his booklet-notes, Christopher Palmer has pertinent things to say about the sexual climate of Britten’s last opera, Death in Venice; but these seem to become of less consequence as you listen to the music. Its potency and inventiveness create this opera’s disturbing and intense atmosphere, each episode heightened dramatically by instrumental colouring. Under Bedford’s direction each scene is fully integrated into a fluent and convincing whole. This recording was made while Britten was very ill; it omits Aschenbach’s first recitative (‘I have always kept a close watch over my development as a writer…’), given as an optional cut in the vocal score, which was published after the recording was made, by which time Britten had changed his mind about this cut and wished it had been included in the recording. Pears’s Aschenbach, a very English conception, is a masterly performance, matched by John Shirley-Quirk’s assumption of the six characters who are Aschenbach’s messengers of death and the Voice of Dionysus.
Philip Langridge ten Gustav von Aschenbach Alan Opie bar Traveller, Elderly Fop, Old Gondolier, Hotel Manager, Hotel Barber, Leader of the Players, Voice of Dionysus Michael Chance counterten Voice of Apollo BBC Singers; City of London Sinfonia / Richard Hickox
Chandos CHAN10280 (152’ · DDD · S/T/t/N) Buy from Amazon
This recording in Richard Hickox’s Britten series is beautifully played and recorded, and in its all-important central role reunites Hickox with Philip Langridge, so compelling in their earlier set of Peter Grimes. Britten tailored the role of Aschenbach so perfectly for Peter Pears’s inimitable tenor that it’s unlikely any other singer will find it an easy fit. A few years earlier Langridge might have been more adept than he is here at handling some of the high-lying lyrical lines, but the compromises in this department are worth making for a singer who’s so penetrating in dramatic insight. Hardly a page of the score passes without his vivid delivery opening up some new dimension of the role. As the drama deepens he progressively strips the soul of Aschenbach bare.
His two main colleagues perform to an equally high level. Alan Opie is still in his vocal prime and all seven of his multifarious Dionysiac characters are sharply delineated. The excellent Michael Chance is more ethereal as the Voice of Apollo than James Bowman, and for that reason is preferable by a whisker.
As always, Hickox takes his time over the score, but there’s less sense of self-indulgence than in some of his earlier Britten recordings. He draws playing of high quality and generosity of feeling from the City of London Sinfonia. Add an exemplary choral contribution from the BBC Singers and a typically atmospheric Chandos recording, and there’s no reason to resist.
Marlin Miller ten Gustav von Aschenbach Scott Hendricks bar Traveller, Elderly Fop, Old Gondolier, Hotel Manager, Hotel Barber Razek-François Bitar counterten Voice of Apollo Alessandro Riga dancer Tadzio Danilo Palmieri dancer Jaschiu Chorus and Orchestra of La Fenice, Venice / Bruno Bartoletti
Stage director Pier Luigi Pizzi
Video director Davide Mancini
Dynamic DVD 33608 (155’ · NTSC · 16:9 · LPCM 2.0 · 0 · s). Recorded live 2008. Buy from Amazon
Here is Death in Venice in high Visconti style, ravishingly designed in greys and silver blues, and inimitably Italian in the classical elegance of its settings. No other production of this opera has so successfully transported the audience through a series of fully conceived sets – starting out from a graveyard built of piles of books, along the Grand Canal, checking in to a black-and-white marble hotel, and then out on to the beach, where the games of Apollo take place under the gaze of the god’s giant statue.
Does the magnificence of the production upstage the singers? Yes, a little, although the cast are well inside their roles. Marlin Miller sings with a refined lyrical sensibility that makes the most of Aschenbach’s long stretches of limpid arioso and is alive to the poetry of the words. He also charts the character’s decline vividly, but his younger-than-usual Aschenbach comes across as softer, and perhaps lesser in stature, than either Peter Pears with his patrician hauteur or the rigorously unsentimental Robert Tear on Glyndebourne’s rival DVD.
In the seven roles of his nemesis, Scott Hendricks sings toughly, bolstered by Pizzi’s portrayal of this central relationship as a physical clench of opposites. As Britten intended, the role of Tadzio is taken by a dancer, the dark and very Italian Alessandro Riga, who bristles with adolescent pride. Like most of the offstage sounds, Razek-François Bitar’s Voice of Apollo is too distant and the small parts are not generally well taken. Though securing decent playing, the conductor, Bruno Bartoletti, could have given the music a stronger emotional pull. If this were a CD, the recording would not be first choice, but the beauty and grandeur of the production on DVD make it an exceptional treat. It is unlikely we will see another Death in Venice to rival this one visually for a long time.