BRITTEN: Death in Venice

The tenor lead, Gustav von
Aschenbach, sings a series of recitatives reflecting on the events as they
unfold around him. The first of these, “I have always kept a close
watch over my development as a writer..,” occurring in the opening
scene in which he makes the first of his many wrong decisions, was cut at the
premiere and the recording on Decca/London. The broadcast tape from the
second ever performance on 22 June 1973 (available on Opera D’Oro OPD-1418)
omits the passage as well. This new recording conducted by Richard Hickox is
welcome in that it includes the passage as well providing the first
re-examination of the opera in thirty years.

Britten’s last major work, Death in Venice is an intense opera
but more intellectually than dramatically so. As drama it plays awkwardly.
The appearance of Apollo in the first act, for example, is an unexplained
fantasy unlike his reappearance with Dionysus in act two as part of
Aschenbach’s dream, which makes more sense. Death in Venice is also
a drama of inaction. Aschenbach never speaks to the boy Tadzio who so
obsesses him. In fact the only thing that seems to do something is the
cholera epidemic that infects and kills Aschenbach. But musically, Britten’s
score is alive with drama; and this recording captures the musical
characterizations of people, places and events that, as Aschenbach learns,
mere words cannot express. Chandos also offers sharper and more detailed
sound, the individual instruments clearly defined and adding character to the
storytelling. One example is the percussion (brushes scraped across the
timpani) that ingeniously create the sound of the steamer transporting
Aschenbach and the Elderly Fop across the water into Venice. Another is the
Venetian overture in scene 2 [track 5] that begins with a watery barcarolle
leading into fanfares echoing Venice’s golden age. Other themes, which are
allocated to specific instruments that signify characters and events (like
the vibraphone for the non-singing Tadzio or the sinister tuba theme
depicting the spreading epidemic), are highlighted.

Vocally, the opera must be dominated by the tenor singing Aschenbach and
by the virtuoso baritone who undertakes the seven roles that figure in
Aschenbach’s intellectual, moral and physical death. As Aschenbach, Philip
Langridge (who at 66 was actually 2 years older than the role’s creator Peter
Pears was when he recorded his interpretation in 1974) has a fresher and
freer voice than his recorded predecessor. His interpretation is also more
involved. Right from the start, Langridge sounds as though he feels his
various predicaments. Slightly stressing the word ‘on’ in the opera’s opening
words “My mind beats on,” he similarly colours each phrase to
suggest a confused, distressed and eventually pain-wracked man. This
naturally makes his Aschenbach more passionate such that the few moments when
he nearly addresses Tadzio throb with intensity. Alan Opie’s Fop is less
caricatured than John Shirley Quirk on the previous recordings; but the
percussion, as mentioned, almost doubles for the Fop’s wheezing and sneering
innuendo during this scene. Opie’s is a dark voice and he sings the various
characters Aschenbach meets with equal restraint. All less grotesque but no
less sinister than is customary.

The most obvious difference is the advance in recording technology since
1974. Hickox is emerging as the new champion Britten conductor and the
Chandos recording shows up the stunning orchestral clarity he ensures in
performances and recordings allowing the listener to appreciate Britten’s
musical scene painting even more.

Michael Magnusson

image_description=Benjamin Britten: Death in Venice
product_title=Benjamin Britten: Death in Venice
product_by=Philip Langridge (tenor), Alan Opie (baritone), Michael Chance (counter tenor), BBC Singers, City of London Sinfonietta. Richard Hickox, conductor.
product_id=Chandos 10280(2) [2CDs]