Sunday, 20 September 2009

Britten's Death in Venice at Theater an der Wien

Yesterday evening Benjamin Britten's wonderful Death in Venice music, at times featuring four xylophones, piano and harp overlaying the dark tones with the steadily increasing and almost hypnotic quality required to do justice to Thomas Mann's story was performed superbly by the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra of Vienna conducted by Donald Runnicles. Much more than a series of sepia postcards.

Myfanwy Piper's libretto, Kandis Cook's costumes, Adam Silverman's lighting, Thom Stuart's choreography, and most of all Kurt Streit, perfect in every nuance and detail even to the seemingly unending shocked and frozen to the spot stance, in the character role of Thomas Mann's troubled writer Gustav von Aschenbach, supported by Russell Braun playing no less than seven roles, produced almost three hours of unforgettable opera at Vienna's Theater an der Wien. If Kurt Streit were ever to give up opera one felt he could quickly turn his hand to being a leading actor. So convincing was he.

The story begins with Aschenbach walking through Munich. He is suffering from writer's block: My mind beats on and no words come! Looking for inspiration he contemplates an open grave. The way to the house of the Lord is via the black rectangle in the ground. Suddenly a strange and mysterious traveller from the Alps appears and persuades Ashenbach to head south, to Italy, like the many poets and writers who have been there before him. There he will surely find the inspiration he desperately seeks.

He arrives in Venice by ship. In a black coffin dark gondola he is taken to the Venice Lido across the indolent lapping waves. He finds himself in an hotel with a view of the beach. On this beach, from behind his newspaper, he will spy on the elegant boy, the little Polish god, the proud Tadzio (Raffaele Zarrella) and he will fall in love with him; for in this Venice the wind from the land, the Sirocco, plays with sunlight and shadow and all is odd, unreal and out of normal focus.

But, of course, every beauty and perfection has its dark and ugly side and in Venice it's the outbreak of cholera, the beggars under the bridges, the horrible, evil nauseous something in the air. Aschenbach is torn between staying and leaving. He orders his bags packed and taken to the train. But then he decides not to follow. The lure of the sunbronzed Tadzio holds him to Venice.

As the visitors discover the cholera epidemic they begin to leave the hotel, first in ones and twos and then in larger numbers. Aschenbach, for selfish motives, is unable to warn Tadzio and his family the nature of the peril in which they stand. They continue enjoying their beach holiday in blissful ignorance. The hotel management covers up the real reason for their other guests sudden departures...

When the lights went out and the curtain fell there were spontaneous standing ovations and bravos. And well deserved they were too, but none more so than those for the undoubted star, Kurt Streit. The role might have been tailor made for him. In fact it was written by Benjamin Britten for his life-partner Peter Pears. But nevertheless it fitted the talented Kurt Streit better than the crumpled white suit he wore at the tragic bitter end; almost to perfection!

From the text:

Phaedrus learned what beauty is
From Socrates beneath the tree
Beauty is the only form
Of spirit that our eyes can see
So brings to the outcast soul
Reflections of Divinity.

. . .

. . .
Does beauty lead to wisdom, Phaedrus?
Yes, but through the senses.
Can poets take this way then
For senses lead to passion, Phaedrus.
Passion leads to knowledge
Knowledge to forgiveness
To compassion with the abyss.
Should we then reject it, Phaedrus,
The wisdom poets crave,
Seeking only form and pure detachment
Simplicity and discipline?
But this is beauty, Phaedrus,
Discovered through the senses
And senses lead to passion, Phaedrus,
And passion to the abyss.

. . .


  1. I have never seen this poet, but i love the music of Britten. I saw his Midsummer Night's Dream in Birmingham many years ago and I remember it still. You cannot beat a good live performance - worth a thousand recordings.
    I once saw Janacek's From the House of the Dead, done byu Welsh National Opera - when I think of it now it still makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck

  2. I reckon anything written by Benjamin Britten is worth going to see. I rate him as the best composer of the last century. Of course, Stravinsky might disagree ;-)
    By the way Runnicles is joining Rattle in Berlin. He'll take charge of the Opera.

  3. I have just remembered the name of the counter tenor who sang the part of Oberon - I have trawled it from the very depths of my memory - it was James Bowman - wonderful voice.

  4. "Beauty is the only form
    Of spirit that our eyes can see" - a startling thought.

    I must confess to being a Tippett man myself. (His 2nd Symphony was the first piece of classical music I really fell for). However, I do seem to warm to Britten more and more as I get older.


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