Sunday, October 17, 2010

Opera review: Death in Venice

Composer: Benjamin Britten
Libretto: Myfanwy Piper
Director: Yoshi Oida
Conductor: Steuart Bedford
Cast: Alan Oke, Peter Savidge, William Towers

Last night was the opening night for the Canadian Opera Company's production of Death in Venice by Benjamin Britten. The Toronto audience was privileged to hear Steuart Bedford lead the orchestra, Britten's own choice of conductor for the 1973 premiere. He exuded a comfort and ease with the music that made its strange modernism come to life beautifully. In the demanding lead role of Gustav von Aschenbach, British tenor Alan Oke was magnificent. In a supporting role, his fellow Brit Peter Savidge was delightful as "The Traveller," which took the form of numerous roles.

Dramatically, the story taken from Thomas Mann's novella is pretty thin: A German writer Aschenbach whose wife passed away, decides to vacation in Venice where he spies a youth Tadzio and lusts after him. Even after warnings of a cholera plague begin to circulate, he chooses to stay behind and imagines that they could be alone together. It's not exactly the usual melodrama that we get with opera. Rather, it's a spare, minimalist inner struggle. The same story became the basis for Luchino Visconti's movie of the same name.

Director Yoshi Oida deserves much of the praise though for making it come together nicely. His staging was simple but very appealing. The use of dancers (choreographed by Daniela Kurz) gave it movement where it otherwise would have been very static. A shallow pool covered much of the stage and wooden walkways were moved about by characters to simulate the different Venetian locales. Hovering in the back, a screen had various images projected on it throughout, and the odd time it was inverted to become a mirror.

Occasionally it did feel like it dragged, but again that's more because of Mann's source material. It's homoerotic nature means that female voices are almost non-existent but come as noticeably welcome relief when they are used. But it wasn't all darkness and gloom either, and a few moments were quite funny. I very much enjoyed a scene were guests at the hotel all sing in different languages.

The Canadian Opera Company deserves much credit for mounting less traditional and more daring productions such as this. They could easily coast and stick to the 19th-century Italian classics, but they don't. This is yet another deserving triumph for them.

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