Ian Bostridge is in top form in “Death in Venice,” and he’s onstage throughout –but he’s not the star of Deborah Warner’s new production for the English National Opera. That accolade goes to lighting designer Jean Kalman. He and set designer Tom Pye evoke the shifting tones and liquid splendors of Venice with ravishing beauty. Yet despite glowing stage pictures and some equally beauteous sounds from the pit, the evening never fully coalesces into drama.
To be fair, the fault lies largely with the piece. Not only was this Britten’s final opera, it was his last major composition, and although the languorous first act builds to a climactic expression of love, the long-winded second act unravels.
Unlike Visconti’s famous screen version — which turned the central figure into a composer not unlike Mahler, his ardent music suffusing the picture — Britten and librettist Myfanwy Piper retained Gustav von Aschenbach as a writer.
Led to Venice by a mysterious stranger (Peter Coleman-Wright) he meets in a churchyard — who reappears throughout the opera in six further guises — the ascetic widower Aschenbach, worshipper of Apollonian beauty, is shocked to discover his attraction to the perfection of a Polish boy, Tadzio (Benjamin Paul Griffiths). They never so much as speak, but the attraction leads to Aschenbach’s death, as he refuses to leave the city, which is swamped by cholera.
Britten and Piper re-fashioned Aschenbach’s all-important introspection as sustained monologues. These passages of direct address are accompanied only by piano. That makes Bostridge, one of the world’s leading recitalists, almost ideal casting.
A committed intelligence shines throughout his impressive interpretation of this demanding role. Using splendidly clear diction, his voice sounds fuller and more assured than in anything he has done onstage since his outstanding debut as a ghastly Peter Quint in Warner’s production of Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw.”
Here, tall and gangly in Chloe Oblensky’s exquisite Edwardian costumes, Bostridge physically reacts to every shifting, anguished thought in the text. Paradoxically, that turns out to be a problem.
Vocally and intellectually, he is in effortless command, but he is a reactor, not an actor. Instead of generating action or mood, he responds to it. That’s most clear at the points where Aschenbach tries to summon the courage to confront Tadzio or his mother. In both instances, Bostridge flunks the moment because he’s physically ill at ease.
And his casting shifts the emphasis of the piece. Because Bostridge is a young-looking 42, his interest in Tadzio feels more homosexual than pedophilic.
Britten’s deftest dramatic stroke was to have Tadzio danced rather than sung, a decision that emphasizes the gulf between him and Aschenbach. Kim Brandstrup’s vigorous and effective choreography further beefs up Tadzio (Griffiths is an English National Ballet dancer), who banishes expectations of doe-eyed, willowy innocence.
At a couple of points, the Venetian skyline is shown in silhouette but, for the most part, Pye’s sets are allusive rather than literal. Aschenbach’s monologues are divorced from the action, superimposed with projections of handwritten text that help isolate the singer in the space.
Within the action, Pye creates watery textures via strips of reflective flooring that bounce light. He conjures the expensive Lido hotel with huge translucent cream curtains blowing gently in the wind, plus giant, plain black panels which slide back as the hotel manager (Coleman-Wright) sings proudly of “the view.”
Kalman’s changing versions of that view, chilled by early morning fog, ignited by sunlight, soured by yellow sickliness, go a long way toward investing the flawed work with varying mood.
The score’s unique, Indonesian gamelan-inspired sounds are eloquently coaxed from the orchestra by ENO’s new music director Edward Gardner. Britten never lost his love for immensely illustrative word-setting. But even Warner’s expert marshalling of both big picture and intimate detail from her cast cannot disguise the fact that Britten’s once unerring musico-dramatic grip had loosened.