The strip of sea that evokes Venice Lido is emblematic of David McVicar’s new staging of Benjamin Britten’s final opera, Death in Venice, not seen at the Royal Opera House since 1992. A deep peacock blue, it could be made up of strands of Murano glass. Though stippled with light, it does not sparkle, remaining entirely motionless.
Are we being asked to believe something is real when it quite patently is not? Perhaps, like the protagonist’s relationship with the handsome adolescent Tadzio (who always remains at a distance, except for a moment here in the Dionysian dream sequence), this Venice exists predominantly in Gustav von Aschenbach’s head.
In Vicki Mortimer’s sombre designs, based around frequently shifting pillars, La Serenissima more often echoes the oppressively monumental Grand Hotel des Bains than the graceful Piazza San Marco. There is a magnificent full-scale gondola, but it glides in a disorienting black void. Despite this, many scenes are naturalistic, overflowing with painstakingly busy ‘realism’ – tourists, strolling, chatting and twirling parasols, gambolling children, and a rumbustious troupe of travelling players.
Ultimately, it is hard to be sure of McVicar’s overall interpretative scheme – just as it is to know whether Aschenbach’s stilted ponderings (largely derived from the third-person narration of Thomas Mann’s source novella) constitute cunning characterisation or an overly timid English adaptation of dense German prose.
There is no denying the excellence of the production’s execution or the meticulousness of its detailing. In the marathon role of Aschenbach, Mark Padmore sings with consistently well projected elegance and makes an unusually likeable protagonist – almost an everyman. Only when he has been ‘rejuvenated’ by the Hotel Barber (and is maybe already sick with cholera) does he start making himself look foolish.
The hairdresser – like six other portentous characters – is embodied by the velvet-voiced Gerald Finley, as versatile an actor as he is singer. When playing the obsequious Hotel Manager, he unforgettably holds his combover in place each time he makes a respectful bow. As the god Apollo, here presented as a dashing holidaymaker, Tim Mead adds a steely thrust to his silky countertenor. Prominent among the many smaller roles are the decent English Clerk, vividly etched by Dominic Sedgwick, and the Strawberry Seller, suitably luscious-sounding in Rebecca Evans’ interpretation.
Conductor Richard Farnes steers with mastery through the abundance of moods and colours in Britten’s collage-like score. Whenever Tadzio appears, enticing ripples of tuned percussion flash through the orchestra. He, like his mother (Elizabeth McGorian), sisters and playmates is a ballet dancer. Leo Dixon – clearly an adult rather than the young teenager imagined by Mann – makes a mesmerising ritual of the final scene as Aschenbach’s body slumps at the side of the stage.