Britten : Muerte en Venecia (Death in Venice)1974 (Audio)
Director: Steuart Bedford
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Review of William Zakariasen in the New York Daily News
MET HAS A WINNER IN 'DEATH IN VENICE'
One might say that with the American premiere of Benjamin Britten's "Death in Venice" at the Metropolitan last Friday, opera has finally come out of the closet. Yet Britten's score and the Thomas Mann novella upon which it is based are not just about homosexuality any more than "Moby Dick" is just about the whaling industry.
Mann's tale, for all its brevity encompasses as many emotions and plot lines as Goethe's "Faust." Faust in the end, is saved because he refuses in his earth life to utter the fateful words" "Stay, thou art beautiful!" Gustav von Ashenbach, the hapless novelist-hero of "Death in Venice," cannot resist saying them, and is thus doomed.
Von Ashenbach's writings have heretofore been ruled by the Apollnian (spiritual) muse, but the sight of Tadzio, an incredible beauty, triggers his repressed Dionysian (sensual) leanings, which include the death wish lurking in all humanity.
"Death in Venice" is an Everyman tragedy, open to limitless interpretations. Britten's opera, while following Mann's story faithfully, continues a theme underlying most of his stage works (especially "Billy Budd") - the inability of mankind to comprehend innocence.
Britten originally conceived "Death in Venice" as a film, and indeed, much of the score sounds like movie music, merely punctuating Myfanwy Piper's libretto. It is thematically unified, but too often unity degenerates into repetition as Britten seems to overwork past formulas. However, we used to say that about the late scores of Richard Strauss before we knew better, and it must be said that Britten's latest score sounds stronger with each hearing.
There are many immediately appealing moments - the bells and brass fanfares evoking the spirit of Venice, the Balinese orchestra tinkles, eerily indicating Tadzio as well as reminding us that the plague that eventually consumes Aschenbach came from Southeast Asia, and the overriding, thorough professionalism in the writing.
The simple production, which largely uses projections, was imported from its English premiere engagement. It is a bit too small for the Met stage, as indeed the opera itself is. The desired intimacy was often lost, as was much of the English text's audibility.
But, the performance was splendid. Tenor Peter Pears, who at 64 made his Met debut at a time when most singers have long since retired, was heart-rending perfection as von Aschenbach. The role is an often interminable monologue, but Pears' voice held up superbly - the ravages of time have left no mark whatsoever upon his matchless technique.
Baritone John Shirly-Quirk, another newcomer, was likewise fine in the seven manacling roles of Death in various guises, and the rest of the immense cast (largely taken from the Met studio and ballet) followed suit. The one exception was dancer Brian Pitts - overaged and oversexed as Tadzio. The polish boy was more Polish ham, and surely not innocent. He and other dancers weren't helped by Sir Frederick Ashton's flouncing, preening choreography, which needs pruning. Stuart Bedford, who also led the English premiere, conducted with apparent mastery, and the Met orchestra, which always rises to the challenge of difficult music, never sounded better.
John Shirley Quirk