Up close with Aschenbach

Death in Venice is a curious opera.  Based on a Thomas Mann novella, it concerns the aging writer Gustav von Aschenbch and his meditations on aging and art, as well as his obsession with a Polish boy encountered at his Venice hotel.  Very little actually happens.  Aschenbach has a series of encounters with quotidien characters such as the hotel manager and a hairdresser but mostly he observes and what we hear are a series of inner monologues.  To work as theatre Aschenbach must capture our interest and our sympathy.  If he doesn’t the piece can be incredibly boring and irritating.

1.aschenbachStephen Lawless’ 1987 production for Glyndebourne Touring Opera works pretty well.  The focus is very much on Aschenbach reinforced by the small set.  Robin Lough’s video direction reinforces this sense of claustrophobia and interiority by relying heavily on close ups.  The Polish family and other children are choreographed by Martha Clarke in a way that makes them sklghtly exotic and stylized and very not English.  The whole feel is of that slightly bloodless world that Mann seems to be obsessed with.  I was reminded as much of Der Zauberberg, or even Wӓlsungenblut  as Der Tod in Venedig.

2.beachRobert Tear is a truly excellent Aschenbach.  He’s the epitome of a Britten tenor; restrained, crystalline and with perfect diction.  He is entirely convincing as Aschenbach.  He’s well supported by Alan Opie who sings the multiple baritone parts that acts as foils to the protagonist.  Michael Chance is suitably other wordly as the Voice of Apollo.  The large cast of bit players includes both Gerry Finley and Chris Ventris.  Graeme Jenkins conducts the London Sinfonietta who rather specialised in Britten’s smaller scale pieces in this era and are, predictably, excellent.

3.polesThe disk package is a bit odd.  It appears to have been recorded in the studio rather than the theatre.  The only soundtrack is Dolby 5.0.  There’s also something going on with the bass.  It sounded OK  (just) when I was listening through speakers but on headphones it was almost unlistenable, with very weird and distracting LF rumbling.  Also there are no subtitles.  The picture is 1980’s vintage TV (4:3) but all the close ups mean that isn’t too bothersome.  Note that these comments apply to the North American release on the Kultur label.  The European release on Arthaus may not have the same technical issues.

4.apolloAll in all, if you don’t need a modern recording, this is an OK introduction to the work.

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