Preview: Death In Venice, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

A performance with everything but the boy
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The Independent Culture

On 4 December, it will be the 30th anniversary of Benjamin Britten's death, and that date will see the climax of a Wigmore weekend devoted to his most inward vocal works. Meanwhile, Death in Venice, the opera he wrote as the swansong of his love for Peter Pears, will, tomorrow night and Saturday, be performed, semi-staged, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, with Richard Hickox conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Central to both events will be the tenor Philip Langridge, a noted interpreter of the role of Gustav von Aschenbach, the writer who is the doomed hero of the Thomas Mann novella on which the opera is based.

How "semi-staged" will this performance be? "Minimally, I suspect," says Langridge. "We'll just see what we can come up with." Will there be a boy on stage? Probably not; after all, in the opera, Tadzio - the boy by whom Von Aschenbach is bewitched - never opens his mouth; he cavorts and fights to gamelan accompaniment. "It's a very fragile piece," says Langridge. "It all takes place in Von Aschenbach's mind, so it's difficult to create on stage."

Von Aschenbach debates endlessly with himself before he succumbs to his fate: Britten has set these debates as recitatives that occupy a strange middle-ground between speech and song. Langridge recalls working with Britten and Pears on a Schütz cantata that had been written out as blocks on a four-line stave: "And he used those same blocks as a way of notating this. But it's not Sprechgesang: it's meant to be sung, but it must sound as though it's spoken, as though Von Aschenbach is talking to himself."

The more Langridge does this role, the more it grows on him: "The first time I did it, I assumed I would have to play a homosexual, but it's really just fired by Von Aschenbach's love of beauty. He never touches the boy: it's emphatically not about paedophilia - a word, incidentally, that didn't exist in Britten's day. It's not homoerotic like the film. But it is about beauty, and about being led down the wrong path by your love for it."

23 November (08703 800 400; www.rfh.org.uk) Britten 'In Memoriam', 2-4 December (020-7935 2141; www.wigmore-hall.org.uk)

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