Death in Venice English National Opera – review

Coliseum, London

Britten's final opera can seem a one-man show. The ageing writer Aschenbach is on stage almost throughout, has the lion's share of the singing and, in his reflections on art, is so clearly the voice of the ailing Britten that he cannot avoid being the focus of attention. Yet the glory of this unmissable ENO revival is that the honours are so obviously shared, and not even John Graham-Hall's remarkable Aschenbach manages to eclipse Edward Gardner's exemplary conducting, let alone Deborah Warner's compelling staging – worth the price of admission alone.

Warner has returned to stage her 2007 production, with Tom Pye's economical but fluid designs and Jean Kalman's atmospheric lighting combining to create an ever-changing set of memorable images, never more so than in the gondola scenes, for which Britten writes such simple yet sinister music. Kim Brandstrup's varied choreography, which centres on Sam Zaldivar's enigmatic Tadzio and gives the scenes on the beach their energy, is integral to the fluency of the whole conception, and Chloe Obolensky's belle époque costumes are pitch perfect without being overdone.

Death in Venice, ENO 2013
John Graham-Hall as Gustav von Aschenbach. Photograph: Tristram Kenton Photograph: Tristram Kenton

In an opera that is full of vignettes all deftly handled by Warner, Anna Dennis's strawberry seller and, in particular, Marcus Farnsworth's darkly menacing English clerk stand out. Tim Mead sings with honeyed allure as the Voice of Apollo, while Andrew Shore makes a wonderfully practised impact with each of his seven, highly distinctive character roles. Though there are no surtitles, one doesn't miss much.

Death in Venice, ENO 2013.
Sam Zaldivar (Tadzio), left and John Graham-Hall (Aschenbach). Photo: Tristram Kenton Photograph: Tristram Kenton

In the end, Aschenbach obviously matters most. Some guardians of the Britten flame will find Graham-Hall insufficiently forbidding when compared with more obviously intellectual Aschenbachs, such as Peter Pears and Robert Tear, or Ian Bostridge in the 2007 performances, and he cannot summon their austere vocalism either. But Graham-Hall inhabits the role more convincingly than any of them. Aschenbach's disintegration is harrowingly believable, and Graham-Hall manages to sing the role with a refreshing naturalness that goes with his always fine acting. Death in Venice emerges anew, without some of the archness to which Britten and his librettists were so susceptible, yet with its rich layers of meaning fully intact.

• What have you been to see lately? Tell us about it on Twitter using #GdnReview


Martin Kettle

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Death in Venice – review

Opera North's production of Britten's last stage work is a thing of simple beauty, though not without eccentricities, writes Tim Ashley

Tim Ashley

18, Oct, 2013 @11:58 AM

Article image
Death in Venice review – powerfully direct
Steuart Bedford, who also conducted the premiere of Britten’s opera in 1973, gets the best from his orchestra, while dancers reveal its dynamism and energy

Guy Dammann

22, Jun, 2015 @1:35 PM

Prom 55: Peter Grimes – review

Derived from the ENO's 2009 production, this version of the Britten opera overwhelmed, writes Tim Ashley

Tim Ashley

26, Aug, 2012 @10:04 AM

Article image
Peter Grimes, English National Opera - review

David Alden's 2009 production of Britten's opera remains an overwhelming experience, held together by Gardner's lyrical and searingly intense conducting

Tim Ashley

30, Jan, 2014 @10:18 AM

Article image
The Death of Klinghoffer - review

ENO's new production of John Adams's controversial opera underlines its musical worth and its timeless seriousness, writes Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements

26, Feb, 2012 @11:56 AM

Article image
Death in Venice review – Britten's opera dazzles and glows
Mark Padmore’s impressive central performance powers David McVicar’s luxurious if earthbound revival of Britten’s final opera

Erica Jeal

22, Nov, 2019 @1:00 PM

Article image
Philip Langridge obituary

Leading British tenor committed to the theatrical dimension of the operatic stage

Barry Millington

07, Mar, 2010 @7:12 PM

Albert Herring – review

Eric Crozier's libretto is laugh-out-loud funny. And in the intimate setting, the fictional Suffolk village of Luxford emerges as one of Britten's great operatic communities, says Alfred Hickling

Alfred Hickling

17, May, 2013 @2:33 PM

Article image
Paul Bunyan – review

Stephen Fry is a hugely resonant presence as the American legend in Welsh National Youth Opera's new production of Britten's opera, writes Rian Evans

Rian Evans

26, Aug, 2013 @3:06 PM

Article image
Peter Grimes - review

Ben Heppner sounds convincingly neurotic, but is also plagued by intonation problems when singing softly, writes Tim Ashley

Tim Ashley

23, Jun, 2011 @5:12 PM