When the month-long, $9.2-million Toronto International Festival closed last week, it left memories of great performances to fade like flowers after a ball. Still, a legacy of specially commissioned productions by Canadian composers and music and dance companies will survive the ephemeral extravaganza. The most costly and ambitious was last week’s $650,000 Canadian premiere by the Canadian Opera Company (COC) of Benjamin Britten’s 1973 masterpiece Death in Venice. CBC Radio recorded the performance and will broadcast it across Canada on Nov. 24. Death in Venice was among the high points of the glittering festival, which also featured New York’s Metropolitan Opera and The Hamburg Ballet. The event offered Canadians an opportunity to perform in an arena with the world’s finest, and the COC met the challenge with distinction.
Death in Venice, the last opera that the great British composer wrote before he died in 1976, is a formidable challenge. Based on the 1913 novella by Thomas Mann, it is a semi-abstract, cerebral work which contains little conventional action. Instead, it takes place largely in the mind of its central character, Gustav von Aschenbach, a distinguished middle-aged German writer who travels to Venice hoping to refresh his tired imagination. There, the rigid, upright intellectual, who has long banished sensuality and spontaneous emotion from his life and work, falls under the spell of a beautiful, godlike Polish boy, Tadzio. Gradually, he disintegrates under the strain of his obsession and succumbs to a cholera outbreak in the city.
The work operates on many levels: as a tale of repressed homosexual lust, of age longing for lost youth and of the symbolic struggle between the passionate Dionysian and the rational Apollonian principles in life and art. Luchino Visconti’s 1970 film Death in Venice opted for a decadent interpretation, but Britten followed Mann’s example in walking a finer line between reality and myth. The COC production preserved that delicate balance, neither descend-
ing to stark literalism nor dissolving to airy abstraction. The final scene, in which Aschenbach collapses in his beach chair while the oblivious, goldenhaired youth points outward to the sea, represents both the death of a degraded man and the expression of an artistic credo that Dionysus, the god of passion, ultimately will destroy those who flout him.
The success of Death in Venice is heavily dependent on Aschenbach, who is on stage most of the time. American tenor Kenneth Riegel commanded attention in the demanding part with the purity and power of his voice, but his characterization was uneven. At the start of the opera Aschenbach should radiate dignity and self-possession, but
instead Riegel was furtive and unhinged from the opening line, “My mind beats on.” As a result, Aschenbach’s downfall lost some of its poignancy and momentum. Riegel became more convincing as the character degenerated. Canadian baritone Allan Monk showed resonant vocal strength and deft dramatic flair in a succession of six colorful roles, including the elderly fop, the hotel manager and the bawdy balladeer, all of whom help to lead Aschenbach to his doom.
By contrast with the dark, dissonant musical themes that accompany Aschenbach’s nightmarish journey, the
composer conveys the world of Tadzio, who never speaks in the opera, in sparkling exotic refrains and dance. As the “mortal child with more than mortal grace,” American dancer Jeffrey Edwards, 19, seemed too old for the part. Strutting, with his nose pointed haughtily into the air, he lacked the aura of innocence and sweetness that should still cling to Tadzio. But when he performed Australian Graeme Murphy’s graceful, sensuous choreography, he gave credibility to Aschenbach’s feverish devotion.
Wolfram Skalicki’s ingenious sets and Susan Benson’s elegant costumes played a pivotal part in sustaining the lyrical mood. Images projected onto the backdrop, and rapidly shifting sets ac-
commodated the opera’s numerous scene changes with the seamless fluidity of a dream. Like a series of Impressionist paintings, they offered potent visual translations of Britten’s intricate, evocative score: the crisp outline of a black gondola moving through the lurid, decaying splendor of the Venetian canals, the swish of pale glistening gowns and lace parasols against the iridescent color-washed sky at the beach. With abundant riches to dazzle both eye and ear, Death in Venice proved a spellbinding tribute to beauty’s intoxicating power.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.