DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

BRITTEN: Death in Venice (complete opera) (2010)

Death in Venice will never be an easy ride, but this production does it credit.

Published on June 13, 2012

BRITTEN: Death in Venice (complete opera) (2010)

Conductor: Bruno Bartoletti/ Venice Theater Orch. and Chorus
Cast: Martin Miller (Gustav von Aschenbach)/ Scott Hendricks (The Traveller et al)/ Razek-François Bitar (Voice of Apollo)/ Alessandro Riga (Tadzio)/ Danilo Palmieri (Jaschui)/ Sabrina Vianello (Strawberry and Newspaper Seller)/ Liesbeth Devos (Lace Seller)
Director: Pier Luigi Pizzi
Studio: Dynamic 33608 [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: 16:9 Color
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, PCM Stereo 2.0
Subtitles: German, English, French, Spanish, Italian
Length: 155 minutes
Rating: ****

Benjamin Britten’s last opera is a real mind job; anyone familiar with Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella, which is full of psycho-sexual-erotic imagery tenuously tied into philosophical concerns about beauty, form, passion, and you name it, from the ancient Greek writers and the gods themselves as presented via Nietzsche, knows what tough sledding something like this is no matter what artistic form it takes. Many think the opera roughly autobiographical, and there may be some truth to it; after all, Britten was preparing for major heart surgery which he postponed to work on this opera. It is difficult, there are many twelve-tone passages though they don’t sound anything like you would find in the Second Viennese School, and the scoring is generally sparse, concise, and leaves us with the sense that the problems of the protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach, are so severe and incurable that even the music itself has abandoned him.

Aschenbach is suffering from writer’s block and is told he should take some time off to recoup in Venice. All goes well until he eyes a young Polish boy, Tadzio, and is so taken with his form and beauty that he eventually crosses a mental line and become obsessed, a crushing condition that leads to his deterioration, and finally death due to the cholera epidemic that has hit Venice. In the interim we are exposed to a multitudinous textual line of Mannistic philosophy that is intermittently successful for opera transmission, but often seems self-indulgent and even pandering to the audience. How much, for example, are we expected to take of this German angst knowing all the while that the majority of the viewers are not going to relate to the obsession or want to plumb the depths of Britten’s Mann-induced philosophy?

Venice is of course arguably the most Gothic city in Western Europe, and the sets emphasize that fact by making the shading quite dark even in obvious daylight scenes; for Aschenbach there is to be no light shed on his situation at all. His death in Venice seems to occur the moment he enters the city, the action only serving to tell us why it happens. Britten had a modest success with this work, and there was a film version of it also, but we are here many miles away from Peter Grimes, and one enters the theater with quite different expectations. Even the visuals make us understand that this is one performance of one opera done live, and the frequent cutaways to conductor Bartoletti, who does a fine job leading his outstanding forces, only serve to emphasize this. The singers, dancers, and actor are all excellent, and even the Italian English seems somehow fitting in some of the characters. The best role is probably that of Scott Hendricks, who must play a variety of roles with very different personalities, and he does a superb job. Martin Miller’s Aschenbach is also nicely managed, tortured, hopeful, and ultimately resigned to his fate. This opera is always going to be a tough one to produce, and this one from Venice is more than creditable.

Steven Ritter

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