If I have a beef with Britten’s Death in Venice it’s that it’s a bit cerebral and bloodless, at least as it has come down in the Aldeburgh-Glyndebourne-ENO performing tradition. I think it’s fair to say that in its bloodlessness it mirrors the Thomas Mann novella (and indeed a lot of Mann’s other writing) but, for me, it’s a challenge to engage with the piece and, especially, with Gustav von Aschenbach. So, it was with surprise and growing pleasure that I watched Pier Luigi Pizzi’s production for, appropriately enough, Venice’s La Fenice. His take is bold and seems to centre less on Aschenbach’s relationshsip with the Polish boy, Tadziu, and more on the conflict between Dionysian and Apollonian ways of thinking and doing and I think it’s clear that Pizzi is a Dionysian.
There are two key lements to realising this idea. The first is the use of dancers; lots of them; male and female. They are very good. They are dynamic and they really reveal their role (and much else) in a positively orgiastic staging of the debate in Ace 2 between the two gods. One thing this does is inject some element of the Feminine into the production; an element usually refined away into the elegant silence of the Polish mother and governess. The second key element are the performances of Marlin Miller as Aschenbach and Scott Hendricks in the multiple baritone roles. Miller makes no effort to attain a Pears like ultra-refined tone and diction. Some of the time he almost speaks his lines and at others sounds quite anguished; torturing the music to high dramatic effect. Hendricks too is earthy. he’s sinister and a bit manic as he brings off the various odd characters who come Aschenbach’s way. It climaxes in the final scenes. Aschenbach is clearly delerious with cholera. The hotel manager knows it but doesn’t care. If a tourist leaves at the end of the season does it matter if he is in a box? It’s a bit shocking but it seems all of a piece.
The minor roles are all done rather well by a rather good looking cast. I particularly liked Sabrina Vianello as the Strawberry Seller and Newspaper Seller. The chorus does sound a bit Italian but sings pretty well and the orchestra is fine. Bruno Bartoletti conducts a reading of the score that maintains a Britten like clarity while supporting the drama.
Video direction is by Davide Mancetti and it’s pretty decent. There are some arresting images in this production and i think he treats them with respect. It was recorded in HD and looks perfectly OK on DVD. I expect the Blu-ray would provide more detail though. Both the Dolby Surround and LPCM stereo sound tracks capture lots of detail. You can clearly hear bows on stands during the curtain call for instance. There are no extras on the disk. There are English, French, German, Italian and Spanish subtitles. The booklet contains a short essay about Death in Venice and a synopsis but nothing on the production itself.