Death in Venice, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

No doubt it is the mark of a masterpiece that it contains far more than any single performance, however insightful, can ever reveal. When Britten's last opera, Death in Venice, was first staged in 1973, it came over very much as the elegiac testament of a dying composer.

With Peter Pears, well into his sixties, as Aschenbach the stricken hero of Thomas Mann's source novella, and Steuart Bedford sticking carefully to the letter of the score in Britten's absence, the pace seemed lingering, the music often poignantly etiolated. Yet now, 31 years later, come Philip Langridge and Richard Hickox to show it as a a tautly complex music drama of overwhelming intensity.

The occasion for this revelation was, appropriately, a concert performance in aid of the Venice in Peril Fund, by a distinguished cast with the BBC Singers and City of London Sinfonia, prior to Hickox taking them all into the recording studio. The result will surely prove far more than a mere alternative to the old Pears/Bedford discs. From the moment the tremulous opening music broke the silence to the agonised climax of the first act, where Aschenbach at last comes out with his "I - love you", Hickox gripped the score in an unbroken arc of rising tension.

And on the way, what astonishing sonorities Hickox drew from his 41 players; never, perhaps, before, have Britten's new-found chord-spacings come over so vividly. Not only was the structure he and his librettist, Myfanwy Piper devised strikingly original. In this performance, one was convinced Britten was also on the verge of a new, ambiguously complex harmonic language which he never lived long enough quite to follow through. Meanwhile, individual BBC Singers stepped forth to offer apt cameos of Aschenbach's many Venetian encounters. In the Apollo-Dionysus struggle for Aschenbach's psyche, Michael Chance was the radiant sun god; Alan Opie increasingly dark of timbre and sinister of diction in the sequence of fateful characters - the Gondolier, the Hotel Manager, the Barber, Dionysus himself - who convey Aschenbach to his doom.

Tadzio, the object of his passion, being cast as a wordless dancer, did not appear in this performance, but one had only to watch Philip Langridge's face to imagine him. This was a role written for, even partly by Pears, with all his unique idiosyncrasies, and one never imagined him being surpassed. Yet in his immaculate diction, vast range of expression and tone, and above all, in the integrity of his portrayal, Langridge surely comes close.