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Death in Venice

William Dazeley and Paul Nilon in Death in Venice, at Garsington
William Dazeley and Paul Nilon in Death in Venice, at Garsington. Photo: Clive Barda
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At the time of Death in Venice’s premiere back in 1973, Benjamin Britten was already suffering from the heart disease (which eventually was fatal) that made it impossible for him to conduct its first performances. This vital duty was delegated to his close musical associate, Steuart Bedford.

Forty two years on, the 75-year-old Bedford conducts Garsington’s first production of the opera in a new staging by British director Paul Curran. The result is a triumph for all concerned.

Britten’s final opera is a masterpiece of subtlety and understatement, created out of Thomas Mann’s novella, which was also the source of Visconti’s famous film of roughly the same period, starring Dirk Bogarde. As in the film, there is an enormous leading role in the shape of that of the writer Gustav von Aschenbach – here taken with brilliance by tenor Paul Nilon, who has surely done nothing finer.

Next to Nilon in centrality are the seven baritone roles undertaken by one singer – those of the characters such as the Traveller, the Elderly Fop, the Hotel Manager, the Hotel Barber and others – who seem to be leading Aschenbach towards his own death. William Dazeley personifies these perfectly, singing each one with distinction and managing with alacrity the quick changes necessary between them. The third crucial vocal role is that of Apollo, sung with an appropriately unearthly beauty by Tom Verney.

Unusually, Britten designed the opera with silent dancers undertaking the important roles of the beautiful Polish youth Tadzio, his family and friends, emphasising the unbridgeable distance between them and the isolated Aschenbach. Here Andreas Heise’s choreography comes to the fore, and Celestin Boutin (Tadzio), Chris Agius Darmanin (Jaschiu) and Nina Goldman (Polish Mother) all make outstanding solo contributions.

Throughout, Curran’s direction is both detailed and sure-footed, while Kevin Knight’s designs are evocative both of Venice as a whole and the individual locations of the opera’s many scenes. A great evening.

Verdict
Starring Paul Nilon and wonderfully conducted by Steuart Bedford, Paul Curran’s production of Britten’s final opera is unforgettable
George Hall
George Hall writes widely on opera and has contributed regularly to The Stage since 2000. He has also contributed to such publications as The New Penguin Opera Guide and the Oxford Companion to Music
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