Mark Padmore reflects on Britten’s Death in Venice

He jokes that his wife – the designer, Vicki Mortimer, whose period sets
for McVicar’s production we will see in November – probably knows Britten’s
opera better than he does, but by the end of our conversation it’s clear
that Mark’s preparation for and reflections on the role of Gustav von
Aschenbach – and the ‘meaning’, or ‘meanings’, of the opera and the novella
by Thomas Mann on which it is based – have been extensive and that he is
deeply absorbed in the score and text.

I ask Mark if this is a role that he has had in his sights for some time,
and he replies with characteristic diffidence: “There aren’t that many
operatic roles that I can sing – my voice isn’t really an operatic voice.”
Esteemed for his performances as the Evangelist in Bach’s Passions, Mark
has sung some smaller roles in Baroque works as well as performing the
roles of Don Ottavio in Peter Brooks’ staging of Don Giovanni in
Aix-en-Provence (1998) and Tom Rakewell in The Rake’s Progress at
the ThȂtre Royal de la Monnaie (2010). He has also sung Peter Grimes, in
2008 at the St Endellion Festival in Cornwall of which he is Artistic
Director, and he tells me that, while the role is more frequently
considered a Heldentenor role these days, he doesn’t feel that it need be.
Indeed, the Telegraph’s Rupert Christiansen, though
doubting ‘whether he has the welly to project Grimes convincingly in a
major opera house’ found that ‘in the intimacy of St Endellion, he was
enthralling, singing with consummate intelligence and sensitivity (“Now the
Great Bear” was heart-stopping) and presenting the lonely fisherman as a
haunted, helpless victim of his own darker urges’.

But, Mark had to wait until 2013 for his first major operatic role in
Britain when he performed the part of Captain Vere in the revival of Michael
Grandage’s 2010 staging of Billy Budd at Glyndebourne. It’s clear
that he found this an immensely rewarding experience, but he seems a little
surprised by the acclaim that his own performance garnered. One critic
commented that he ‘projected the full force of Vere’s complex character
while giving unparalleled sweetness of tone and crafting of melodic
phrases’ declaring Mark to be ‘a worthy wearer of the mantle of Peter
Pears’; another wrote that ‘his musicality is faultless and his rendering
of the textual nuances crystalline: what a feeling artist he is’. When the
production subsequently transferred to New York, Mark’s performances at the
Brooklyn Academy of Music earned him Musical America’s 2016
Vocalist of the Year award.

Mark has also been an advocate for modern opera and for new works. He
enjoyed singing in the double bill of Harrison Birtwistle’s The Corridor and The Cure (in 2015, at the Aldeburgh
Festival and the ROH’s Linbury Theatre) – Mark later remarks that while
Birtwistle’s music is difficult and time-consuming to learn, the composer
writes well for the voice – and was the Third Angel/John in the revival
George Benjamin’s

Written on Skin

at Covent Garden in 2017. In 2018 he sang in the world premiere of Tansy


, giving a performance, I recall, of astonishing vocal and physical
commitment. Mark remarks that the venue – Printworks, the former
south-east London home of a newspaper printing-press – played a large part
in the impact of the performance, but while that’s certainly true I
remember that it was his own performance as the questing protagonist that
made it so compelling: ‘Whether lyricising or crooning, speaking or
howling, clapping or whistling, every utterance was delivered with care and
sensitivity; and, the purity of his voice was immensely touching, creating
credibility and empathy for a character whose situation and intent might
seem distanced from our own experiences.’

Our conversation turns back to Thomas Mann’s and Benjamin Britten’s
protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach, the celebrated writer whose
self-discipline and ideals are undermined by a vision of Beauty in the form
of a young Polish boy Tadzio whom he encounters during a visit to Venice;
Aschenbach subsequently submits to his passionate impulses, releasing
opposing inner forces which ultimately destroy him. Is it a ‘difficult’
role, vocally, expressively and emotionally? Mark immediately opens his
vocal score at the first page. “I can’t sing these lines without thinking Tristan,” he says. “I can almost hear the Tristan-chord.” It’s a
pertinent point, as Mann, who repeated explored the corruptive force of
passion in his writing, was fascinated by Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde – the opera (and myth) which served to
illustrate the 20th-century Swiss philosopher Denis de
Rougemont’s warning (in his 1939 book, Passion and Society), that
the aesthetic preoccupation with passion can be destructive. Moreover, in a
letter to Carl Maria Weber, Mann had explained that his aim in Death in Venice was to achieve an ‘equilibrium of sensuality and

I suggest to Mark that at the heart of Mann’s novella and Britten’s opera
are complex, troubling questions about the relationship of Beauty to man’s
spiritual and intellectual life. Mark’s response prompts me to see
Aschenbach’s – and by implication the singer’s – journey not just as
literal one, to the South, but also as an ethical one, an idea strengthened
when he mentions Bach’s St Matthew Passion and the way a singer
reflects on the experience of which the Evangelist sings, as Christ
journeys towards death.

Death in Venice
is driven by the play of antagonistic forces – Apollonian and Dionysian –
as Aschenbach’s creativity, stagnant and sterile, is stimulated by ideal
Beauty, releasing opposing compulsions: aesthetic sublimation and physical
consummation. That’s why, as Mark explains, “Britten’s notes really
matter.” He points to the recurring harmonic ambivalences and semitonal
dissonances in the score that articulate this battle of incompatibles,
particularly the opposition of the pitches G? and G# and their related
harmonic areas. Mark turns quickly to the closing scenes of Act 1, at the
point where Aschenbach has determined to leave the city: as Tadzio walks
through the hotel foyer, Aschenbach regrets that this is the last time he
will see the boy: “May God bless you.” “Aschenbach sings the notes of
Tadzio’s motif, but the final note is G?, not G#,” Mark observes, “but then
it’s immediately ‘corrected’ in the strings. It’s like the worm in the


Britten’s score is indeed densely motivic in this way, so much so that I
previously described the score as holding its creators, performers,
protagonists and listeners in the ‘claustrophobic embrace’ of inescapable
tragedy. Mark comments on the significance of the Traveller’s ‘Marvel’s
unfold’ theme, which heralds the arrival of the stranger whose intoxicating
song, “Go, travel to the South”, fills Aschenbach’s “tired heart” with
“inexplicable longing” and compels him to submit to his restlessness. Even
though Aschenbach seems rarely to reflect on the Traveller once he has
embarked on his journey, the ‘Marvels unfold’ motif permeates the score.
(It infuses the ‘Serenissima’ motif introduced by the Youths on board the
boat that transports Aschenbach to Venice; and the tuba’s ‘plague’ theme.)
Mark turns to the scene in Act 2 where Aschenbach pursues Tadzio and his
family through the streets and waterways of Venice, right to the door of
Tazdio’s room into which the boy has just disappeared. At this point,
Aschenbach must linger outside the door, he explains, because of what is
conveyed by the oboe motif. It’s to these details, he feels, that some
directors are not attentive; moreover, some singers seem concerned more
with ‘singing the notes’ than with the expressive and dramatic implications
embedded in the musical language, and are happy simply to ‘be directed’.

“It’s really important to remember that Britten and Mann were meticulous,”
Mark says, and it’s clear that he’s reflecting not only on the need to
perform ‘accurately’ what Britten wrote, but also on the ‘meaning’ that
Britten’s music expresses, often ambiguously, and how this can be
communicated in the theatre. He raises Aschenbach’s acknowledgement and
acceptance of his feelings in the closing bars of Act 1. During the beach
games scene, Apollo’s ethereal, disembodied voice has reached out to
Aschenbach as he watched the children’s athletic games: “He loves beauty
who worships me.” Aschenbach glories in the ideal he has witnessed; when
Tadzio passes him on the way to the hotel, Aschenbach finally understands
the truth: “I love you.” I’ve previously commented on the way the apparent
harmonic conclusiveness (E major) is disturbed by the lingering G? which
concludes the three rising notes which Aschenbach sings on the word “I”,
but Mark suggests that the falling major third, “love you” (G#-E) is more
significant than I suggest: “It’s important in the theatre. After all the
unfolding and yearning of Act 1, this statement prepares the audience for
the exploration of what has been revealed in Act 2.” As the ‘theorist’, I’m
convinced by the practitioner’s argument!

I ask Mark whether the role poses any particular vocal challenges? “With
Vere, I occasionally had to push my voice a little, but here I don’t feel
any strain.” He raises an interesting idea about Aschenbach’s dry,
declamatory style: “Is this vocal irony?” I reflect on Mann’s employment of
an objective narrator, but one who adopts a subtly critical perspective.
There is no such distancing in the opera, and Mann’s narration is replaced
by Aschenbach’s recitative monologues, and in the first of these – the
writer’s proud presentation of himself, “I Aschenbach, famous as a master
writer, successful, honoured” – is undermined by the trumpet’s mocking
commentary. Aschenbach’s address is defiant, but even here, in the opening
pages of the score, he is vulnerable: his dignified declamation lacks
self-knowledge, and the severity of his vocal style does indeed seem
ironic. Mark points out, too, that Aschenbach rarely speaks to any of the
other characters in the opera, which leads me to speculate on the
possibility of an ‘abstract’ production which might present the action as
taking place entirely in the writer’s own mind.

Mark suggests that, lacking a grand, rousing ending, the close of the opera
is in a way anti-climactic, and I add that so often in Britten’s operas at
the close the tensions are unresolved – in the drama but often in the music
too. I recall that in November 1975 Britten returned to Venice, having
completed his Third String Quartet the preceding month; the final part of
the quartet is called ‘Serenissma’ and the score resonances with echoes of Death in Venice, especially Aschenbach’s “I love you” motif which
is reiterated in countless torturous permutations. In the final two bars of
the Quartet, the viola and cello resist the efforts of two violins to
assert an unequivocal tonal centre, and the work ends with a semitonal
discord. “I want the work to end with a question,” Britten said, and I
suggest to Mark that all Britten’s operas end with a question! Moreover, as
Mark – who has been re-reading Mann’s early short stories and parts of Buddenbrooks – observes, both Mann and Britten return to the same
themes and symbols again and again: an endless revisiting of intractable
moral and aesthetic concerns in search of evasive resolution.

Is Mark’s interpretation informed by other performances or productions, I
wonder? He did see Deborah Warner’s 2007 ENO production, with Ian Bostridge
in the title role (I saw this production in


when John Graham-Hall sang Aschenbach), and has listened to Philip
Langridge’s performance as conducted by Richard Hickox on the Chandos
label, and the original Decca recording with Peter Pears – though he
suggests that Death in Venice is not an opera that lends itself
well to recording. “It’s more a case of just working through the score and
learning the notes.”

McVicar will present the opera ‘in its period’, the 1910s, which Mark feels
is appropriate, not least because it prompts us to reflect on what the
opera ‘means’. “Today, most people are comfortable with issues that in the
past were problematic and accept things such as same-sex marriage; but
we’re not comfortable with paedophilia.” Does he think that audience
members may bring with them images from Visconti’s 1971 film, in which
Aschenbach, now a composer, was played by Dirk Bogarde and his suffering so
associated with the music of Mahler? “Well, it’s about the need to look
beneath the surface; much like with Venice itself.” Indeed, the opera’s
moral dilemma is in many ways embodied in the floating city, which, in
Mann’s novella, carries disease – Asian cholera – in the very thing which
defines its beauty.

One element in the production that does allude to the cinematic or visual
is the presence on the beach of a period cine-camera, reminding us, as Mark
explains, of the significance of ‘looking’ and ‘the gaze’ in both the
novella and opera. Indeed, when Aschenbach is first confronted by the
haughty Traveller, the narrator remarks that he seems to stare at
Aschenbach, ‘so straight in the eye, with so evident intention to make an
issue of the matter and outstare him’, and Aschenbach’s ‘relationship’ with
Tadzio is purely visual.

As our conversation draws to a close, I ask Mark the inevitable question
about his future plans and whether there are any works – operatic or
otherwise – that are still on his ‘to do’ list. It’s clear that he does
find Grimes tempting, but isn’t very hopeful of an opportunity arising, and
he’d like very much to sing Vere again. He reflects on how much longer he
will go on performing: he has another St Matthew Passion on the
horizon but wonders if that might be his last performance of that work. “If
I can keep singing Britten, Schubert and Bach, that’s enough.”

Mark seems a little surprised by my final question: is he excited about the
forthcoming Death in Venice production? Noting that in the 2017
production of Written on Skin he was part of collective ensemble
in a fairly busy production, he smiles, “I guess it will be my premiere

There will be five performances of David McVicar’s new production of

Death in Venice

at the Royal Opera House, from 21st November to 6th December.

Claire Seymour

product_title=Mark Padmore reflects on singing the role of Aschenbach in the Royal Opera House’s forthcoming production of Death in Venice
product_by=An interview with Claire Seymour
product_id=Images © Marco Borggreve