La Scena Musicale

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Death in Venice a Must-see

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

It’s not my kind of thing to want to watch a middle-aged man daydream about a young boy and then die of an infection in the end. But aside from the two main ingredients — love and death — one can find in Death in Venice, Benjamin Britten’s final opera, as directed by the Japanese actor, director and author Yoshi Oida, is a poignantlymoveable landscape of east meets west.

In Oida’s Canadian Opera Company debut Oct. 16, the gripping production of Death in Venice came together as a piercing masterpiece. The Asian-influenced set of wooden platforms is complemented in combination with a shallow pool of water and moving images of Venetian canals projected on a midair screen that doubles as the “mirror of spirits” when flipped.

With no real set changes occurring during the two-act opera, and yet the stage was never static, Oida boosted the opera’s dramatic intensity delivered tour de force by those on stage and in the pit. He didn’t set out to create a statement, but simply allowed the story to unfold as written.

British baritone-turned-tenor Alan Oke was profoundly enigmatic in his portrayal of Gustav von Aschenbach, the famous, aging German writer in Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella Britten based his opera on.

Aschenbach suffers from a writer’s block. His wife is dead, his daughter married off. He travels to Venice and becomes obsessed with a youthful Polish boy, Tadzio.

“I — love you,” Aschenbach says of Tadzio to himself in a moment of epiphany at the end of Act 1.

Britten wrote the role of Aschenbach for tenor Peter Pears, his life partner. Oke, a fine, thinking singer, triumphed in this character’s many lengthy monologues as a great actor in this his COC debut. He dominated the production (he never left the stage) with a rare ability to command attention just by the way he sits down on a chair, back facing the audience. The theatrical nuance was striking in the final scene in which Aschenbach succumbs to the cholera outbreak and dies sitting in a chair.

Another British singer who succeeded in capturing the creative imagination that Aschenbach the writer struggled with in this opera was baritone Peter Savidge. Savidge gave insightful performances to seven characters, including a traveller, an elderly fop, an old gondolier and the hotel barber. He did so with distinctive changes of vocal tones, demeanours and some fabulous jackets.

Most of the athletic actions on stage were nicely choreographed by German choreographers Daniela Kurz and Katharina Bader as the roles of Tadzio and his family and friends are played by silent dancers and actors. Pickering-native Adam Sergison made his COC debut dancing Tadzio in fine form.

The COC last performed Death in Venice in 1984. Its latest revival of this complex score showcases British conductor Steuart Bedford, who is a leading expert on the works of Britten and led the world premiere of Death in Venice in 1973.

Under Bedford’s baton, the COC orchestra gave an evocative reading of Britten’s atonal and 12-tone music, with riveting percussion redolent of Balinese gamelan music. My only regret with this production is I wished there were a video screen somewhere where you could see all the actions in the pit.

Death in Venice continues at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts until Nov. 6.


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