Death In Venice, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Monday 27 November 2006
"My mind beats on," repeats Gustav von Aschenbach, over and over, at the start of Britten's opera Death in Venice, and as the extraordinary atmosphere of his questing monologue takes hold and halting clarinets take us deeper into the writer's subconscious, we are reminded yet again just how far Britten (and not Mahler) spirited us from the hammy homoeroticism of Visconti's overrated film. How ludicrous it now seems and how at odds with the mysterious internal world of Thomas Mann's novella.
That sense of the internal is heightened when no actual staging is involved, and in this minimalistically theatrical concert performance (director Kenneth Richardson) from the Philharmonia Orchestra under Richard Hickox, even the object of Aschenbach's desires, the reincarnation, perhaps, of his own youth - the boy Tadzio - is invisible to us, a figment of his imagination mirrored only in the expressions on his face.
Philip Langridge's face tells us myriad stories, not least the parts of Mann's that remain untold. Whether singing or not, whether standing behind a music stand or sitting out the extraordinary orchestral interludes that underscore his stream of consciousness, Langridge is never passive, never for even a second removed from the action - you can read his thoughts. And his thoughts, his internal monologues, are voiced in such a way as to make the singing sound uncannily close to colloquial speech.
The other figures in this mysterious landscape of the imagination were either drawn from the ranks of Philharmonia Voices or made flesh in the multi-faceted persona of Alan Opie, sporting a different coloured handkerchief for each sinister incarnation.
It sounded well, this wonderful score, though I suspect that the seductiveness of the sonorities had more to do with Britten and the Philharmonia's playing than Hickox's somewhat rudimentary direction.
It is now 30 years since Britten's own death and as his valedictory postlude came to rest on a hazy horizon of violin harmonics - a parting vision of Tadzio walking into the ocean - I was pondering if he had ever written anything more beautiful.
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