The week in classical: Death in Venice; Doric String Quartet; Marian Consort – review

Royal Opera House; Wigmore Hall, London
In a rich week of Britten, his glittering final opera overflows with feeling in David McVicar’s impressive new production

Now bathed in sunlight, now plunged into morbid shadow, the Royal Opera House’s new production of Death in Venice (1973), its first in more than a quarter of a century, is hard to fault. At a glance, it exposes the opposing forces tugging at Britten’s last opera: youth and age, health and sickness, head and heart. David McVicar’s traditional staging, designed with loving detail and bold concept by Vicki Mortimer (lighting by Paule Constable), recreates a mood of pre-first world war elegance. We, too, are guests in the columned foyer of the Hôtel des Bains on the Lido, looking out to sea and eternity. This was where Thomas Mann stayed in 1911 and found inspiration for Der Tod in Venedig, the novella on which Britten based his opera.

The tale is familiar, partly thanks to Visconti’s 1971 movie starring Dirk Bogarde (its filming coincided with Britten writing his opera: to avoid accusations of plagiarism he was advised not to see it). A widowed writer, Gustav von Aschenbach, goes to Venice longing for creative rejuvenation. Instead, his thoughts are consumed by a beautiful Polish boy, Tadzio. They never speak. The sirocco blows. The threat of cholera deepens. Much of the action is provided by one baritone – here, the ingenious and versatile Gerald Finley – who plays the multiple roles of traveller, player, fop, barber, voice of Dionysus. Some of these characters are real, some inhabit Aschenbach’s frenzied mind.

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