Ever since his coronation opera Gloriana bombed at its 1953 premiere, Benjamin Britten has never quite owned the stage of his country’s figurehead opera house in the wholehearted way one might expect. Perhaps, though, that is changing, after Deborah Warner’s Billy Budd earlier this year comes this equally big-scale Death in Venice, staged here for the first time in 25 years.
It’s impressively, wholeheartedly done. The cast is first rate, often luxuriously so in the many cameos (Rebecca Evans as the Strawberry Seller!). The chorus is precise, the orchestra supple; Richard Farnes’s conducting moves the music seamlessly from the leanest of textures into fleeting passages of full-orchestral glow. At the centre, there’s a tour de force performance by tenor Mark Padmore as the blocked writer Aschenbach, his voice apparently as fresh at the end of this long evening as at the beginning.
David McVicar’s trademark widescreen period detail feels almost anachronistic in a 1973 opera concerned more with ideas than drama, but it works. Little of Venice needs suggesting on stage thanks to the wordiness of Myfanwy Piper’s libretto. And so the backdrop to Vicki Mortimer’s set is mostly black as night, with scenes emerging out of darkness; Aschenbach’s gondola glides past louring marble pillars. It’s not quite claustrophobic, but it feels stifling, even if Paule Constable’s lighting lends the characters an oil-paint glow.
What’s lacking is a sense of the supernatural. The seven sinister characters who nudge Aschenbach towards his endgame are sung by the same baritone, but it’s only the presence and honeyed quality of Gerald Finley’s voice that gives away the fact they are all him; if Britten intended to unsettle us by having them played by the same man, the effect is lost here. Apollo, glowingly sung by countertenor Tim Mead, is just a bloke on the beach.
But that beach! Washed in late-afternoon sunshine and leading to a glossy, glassy, deep-blue sea, this is where the teenage Tadzio, danced by Leo Dixon in choreography by Lynne Page that perfectly balances the godlike and the human, plays with his friends, and where Aschenbach’s reason deserts him. This was the theme Britten took from Thomas Mann’s novella: the helplessness of intellect in the face of radiant, transient, untouchable beauty. And, as this production seems to reinforce, that beauty didn’t have to be a boy, or even a person – it could be music itself.
At Royal Opera House, London, until 6 December.