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Eloquent and understated

The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
10/16/2010 -  and October 19*, 22, 25, 28, 31, November 3, 6, 2010
Benjamin Britten: Death in Venice
Alan Oke (Gustav von Aschenbach), Peter Savidge (The Traveller, Elderly Fop, Old Gondolier, Hotel Manager, Barber, Leader of the Players, Voice of Dionysus), William Towers (Voice of Apollo), Tom Corbeil (English Clerk), Various Roles: Ambur Braid, Wallis Giunta, John Kriter, Christopher Enns, Ileana Montalbetti, Jennifer Robinson, Alexandra Lennox-Pomeroy, Jacqueline Woodley, Jan Vaculik, Simone Osborne, Rihab Chaieb, Karen Olinyk, Sonya Gosse, Wendy Hatala Foley, Michael Barrett, Jason Nedecky, Grant Allert, Neil Craighead, Adrian Kramer, Sung Chung, Michael Uloth
Dancers: Adam Sergison (Tadzio), Riikka Läser (Polish Mother), Kristy Kennedy (Governess), Ryan Adkins (Jaschiu, Tadzio's friend)
Canadian Opera Company Chorus, Sandra Horst (Chorus Master), Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, Steuart Bedford (Conductor)
Yoshi Oida (Director), Rob Kearley (Associate Director), Tom Schenk (Set Designer), Richard Hudson (Costume Designer), Paule Constable (Original Lighting Designer), Jane Dutton (Lighting Re-creator), Daniela Kurz (Choreographer), Katharina Bader (Revival Choreographer)

A. Oke (© Michael Cooper)

The Canadian Opera Company has performed several works by Benjamin Britten in recent years, usually (as is the case with this Death in Venice) to good effect. Though hardly in the core repertory, Britten’s final work was produced once before by the company - in 1984 in a highly-regarded production featuring Kenneth Riegel.

The work comes close to being a monodrama, with the central figure, Gustav von Aschenbach, recounting his infatuation with an adolescent boy, and then lengthily pondering his reactions. This infatuation leads him to ignore a deadly epidemic and this leads to his death.

Aschenbach’s inner turmoil is due to the fact that he feels torn between his surprising carnal desire for the boy Tadzio and his Apollonian ideas about beauty. At one point we see a dream during which both Apollo and Dionysus urge him to follow their separate paths.

The work’s central dichotomy makes me think just how Dionysian the operatic form is (with the full sensual onslought of big music, big singing, big design, stage action including dance, etc.) and just how Apollonian Death in Venice is, being so detached and analytical (very much in the spirit of its source material, Thomas Mann’s novella). Yoshi Oida’s production further emphasizes this detachment with a design that is stripped to simple elements. Not a single image conjures up Venice. The unit set shows a modest catwalk above a pool of water (when Aschenbach finally realizes his love for Tadzio at the end of Act I he carelessly walks into the ankle-deep water). The textured backdrop captures moody lighting in a most attractive way, and a rather small screen hanging above what action there is shows projections of rippling water. At times this screen turns over and a morrored side reflects part of the stage - this benefits only a portion of the audience. (The production is shared with companies with smaller venues than the Four Seasons Centre - in Aldeburgh itself, Prague, and Lyon.)

There’s further influence of Japanese Noh play approaches in that there are black-clad “invisible” stagehand/performers in some scenes. Noh drama is also an Apollonian theatrical form, as opposed to the circusy Kabuki.

Britten composed the work for a large orcheatra with an expanded percussion section. In keeping with the work’s spare aesthetic, these large forces are used discreetly. At one point there is the hint of a vintage Italian popular song, but the orchestral sound itself doesn’t conjure of Venice so much as Death in Venice (just like Tom Schenk’s designs). We are privileged indeed to have Steuart Bedford conducting (he also conducted the premiere production at Aldeburgh in 1973).

Similarly the large cast (more than 30 roles) is used sparingly. Oustanding among the comprimario performers is Tom Corbeil as the English Clerk in a Travel Bureau, the one character who finally informs Aschenbach about the cholera epidemic. Mr. Corbeil is a recent grad of San Francisco Opera’s Merola program - listen and watch for him.

Alan Oke might well be the leading Aschenbach today. He gives a remarkably full performance of this long role. The other main “role” is a multiple one for baritone. In addition to the seven named roles he must perform, Peter Savidge appears in some scenes as Aschenbach’s silent doppelgänger. This device effectively emphasizes Aschenbach’s endless self-analysis as he sees himself watching his own reactions. The baritone’s many costumes hang at the side of the stage so we can see him assume each part.

Mr. Savidge’s baritone lies at the upper end of the range. As a result he lacks a degree of menace as the Old Gondolier (the costume’s voluminous hood might be swallowing some of his sound). He certainly does a fine job as the Barber who so inappropriately grooms the ill (and delirious?) Aschenbach.

The rather brief third role is stipulated as the Voice of Apollo (not Apollo himself). William Towers sings it just fine, but his matter-of-fact appearance is more mundane than god-like (maybe that’s Apollonian too?)

The dance sequences conjure well the horseplay of Tadzio and his friends. Adam Sergison as Tadzio is depicted as simply yet another teeange boy, leaving us the impression that it is Aschenbach’s perception of him that makes him so special.

The numerous hotel guests and Venetians are effectively deployed. Unlike the anonymous, elemental set design, their costumes accurately and effectively establish the era of Thomas Mann’s story (c. 1912).

This opera (arguably an anti-opera) isn’t for everyone. The post-intermission audience is noticeably depleted. Still, Britten’s steady focus on the central character, supported by a sympathetic production approach, makes Mann’s unlikely material work as an opera.

Note to COC management: if we’re working our way through the Britten canon, a production of Gloriana (now there’s an operatic topic!) would be most welcome.

Michael Johnson



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