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Seeing and hearing Britten's Death in Venice at ENO and on DVD

Death in Venice (Der Tod in Venedig) Thomas Mann/Myfanwy Piper

Ian Bostridge
Peter Coleman-Wright, Iestyn Davies, Dwayne Jones, Madeleine Shaw, William Berger
Director: Deborah Warner
Design: Tom Pye
Lighting: Jean Kalman
Choreography: Kim Brandstrup
English National Opera Orchestra/Edward Gardner

This has ever been a problematic opera, here dominated by a young-looking Aschenbach lusting after the teen-age boy. A couple of decades on, with any word against homosexuality now deemed politically incorrect, Britten might not have felt the need to put his all into this opera; it has become already the most dated of his, and suffers from its chief emphasis, as well as from the slow overall pacing.

There is great instrumental subtlety to enjoy from the orchestra, but no memorable vocal music, and Bostridge does not prevent Aschenbach's self-regarding monologues from palling; we never felt ouselves emotionally identified with his plight.

For us it was less than a great evening. The scene aboard what looked like a large cruise liner left my Swiss wife puzzled about voyaging from Munich to Venice by ship? Deborah Warner's direction was deft, and yes, Tom Pye's settings (eminently shareable with Brussels without inordinate expense - c.p. those heavy sets from New York's Fidelio) were beautiful - all too beautiful? - with the lighting magical.

The movements about, and on and off stage, by the large cast (Warner and Kim Brandstrup) was smoothly managed, and there are many fine stage pictures to remember. But, from ostensibly good press seats (stalls, central towards back) neither of us could see central stage, blocked by heads, and hampered by the very shallow rake. And despite knowing Death in Venice fairly well (one of us didn't) neither of us could hear near-enough of the words; nor should the singers be blamed.

It took long to win the protracted battle for surtitles * , long championed by the writer in various publications, and won first for operas in foreign languages, before it then became clear that they were equally necessary for opera in English, and too for English operas, many of which, like Britten's, have a high literary content - all of which goes for nothing if one struggles to make sentences out of words caught by the ear.

By what whim did Deborah Warner undermine all that at a stroke?

Is the opera director still the one to rule against democtratically audience-led collective wisdom? A moment's decision, endorsed nem con by a few without discussion, and the Company's policy was overturned?

It was back to the bad old elitist times, taking no account of today's changed and very mixed opera audiences. My veteran opera-goer neighbour said, reassuringly, "you always have to do your homework to go to the opera". That had indeed been indeed so in my younger days.

Production teams delude themselves; they know the words so assume everyone else can hear and understand them. They might at least have tested audibility and preferences with the dress rehearsal audience (more knowledgeable, of course, than later ones) in different parts of the house.

Solutions are easy to suggest, and not too late for a production which runs till mid-June. Why not have voting boxes at exit about the missing surtitles, for a simple yes or no? Better without them or were they sorely missed?

For a more urgent and less indulgent presentation of Death in Venice I would urge everyone to see Glyndebourne Touring Opera's version on DVD with Robert Tear and Alan Opie, reviewed six years ago, and fresh as ever on re-viewing. (Subtitles only in foreign languages, but words as recorded of exemplary clarity.)

Peter Grahame Woolf

For a fuller report of the singers etc (and one with which we agree) please see Melanie Eskenazi in Seen&Heard

* - - ENO's new music director Edward Gardner makes a welcome arrival at the Coliseum for this production of Britten's final opera - - One of his tasks must be to address diction, which has yet another mixed night. [The Stage]

- - intended to help to ensure word clarity. At Glyndebourne, supertitles were provided for the English text - anathema to purists and a source of long-running disputation. One can follow sung words, but often the total sense and poetry is elusive - a quick glance to the surtitles can refresh the memory, even for those of us who had read the libretto beforehand - without being seriously distracting for those who prefer not to. I am for surtitles at all times.

The vexed issue of surtitles came to the fore for us again and it was a topic of interval discussion. We met with agreement that surtitles would not have interfered with the staged drama's impact and rather would have helped substantially; people are by now used to having a choice of text languages on DVD and surtitles are increasingly provided in opera houses after earlier purist resistance, which becomes harder to sustain when the sense is so often far from clear even with opera in native language. - - (2002)

(photo: Neil Libbert / English National Opera)