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Death in Venice

Benjamin Britten

Welsh National Opera,

Venue Cymru, Llandudno

Wednesday March 13th, 2 hrs 50 mins

Aschenbach's demons: a scene from WNO's Death in Venice
Aschenbach's demons: a scene from WNO's Death in Venice

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On first impression Benjamin Britten’s opera, Death in Venice, sounds distasteful; the story of a successful writer in his 50s obsessed with a 14-year-old youth.

But once you delve beyond that premise, this becomes an intense, thoughtful piece of work ripe with symbolism.

Living an ordered, productive life with a healthy routine, Gustav von Aschenbach finds his imagination has dried up. His wife has died, his daughter married and he feels disconnected from the world.

A mysterious stranger inspires him to travel to Venice, and fate directs him to the Lido, where his hotel balcony overlooks the beach. He is struck by the sight of a beautiful young Polish youth, Tadzio, who he sees periodically. Aschenbach attempts to leave the city but circumstances conspire to make him return, where he continues to observe Tadzio and by the end of the first act, has to acknowledge to himself that he loves him.

In the second act a cholera epidemic brings a dilemma: to tell Tadzio's family of the danger or stay quiet and keep them near. Keeping quiet, Aschenbach is consumed by guilt and visits a barber who dyes his hair and applies cosmetics, such that Aschenbach becomes what he finds repulsive. He starts to display symptoms of cholera, then hears that Tadzio’s family is leaving. He sees him playing on the beach one final time and Tadzio beckons to him from the sea, at which point Aschenbach collapses and dies.

You could find symbolism and metaphor in nearly everything in this opera. Aschenbach is from Germany, stereotypically ordered and disciplined; he moves to Venice, a place of passion. He dreams of a conflict between Apollo, god of the sun, beauty and simplicity, and Dionysius, the god of passion and fertility. These typify the internal struggle between what is thought to be right and what the heart desires. Aschenbach knows society disapproves of his feelings for Tadzio, but is fatefully compelled by his desire to pursue this passion.

Tadzio (Antony Cesar), usually a non-speaking role, is here cast, like the rest of his family, as a circus artist. The effect is electric, with some outstanding gymnastics. This gives the production an active, engaging feel and for some was the standout feature of the production.

The set is sparse, with a film backdrop to set the scene. This puts the focus on the players, Aschenbach in particular, either central or watching from the side. Mark Le Brocq gives him an excellent, controlled narrative-like performance, not entirely dispassionate but restrained. The music is more strident than melodic, suiting the tragedy that is unfolding.

Death in Venice supposedly mirrors Britten’s personal experience, and there are some uncomfortable themes. But it is a powerful exploration of the personal struggle people can face when morality and passion conflict. Ashenbach here is a tragic figure, failing to come to terms with himself and inexorably driven to a tragic end. The production remains both powerful and important

More info and tickets here


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