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A love affair with a silent dancing boy

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Death in Venice (ČTK): George Seurat-inspired sets pair pointillism with Britten's sparse, percussive leitmotif. (ČTK)George Seurat-inspired sets pair pointillism with Britten’s sparse, percussive leitmotif. (ČTK)

The Prague State Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Death In Venice, which premiered Thursday, won’t give listeners Puccini-like arias of desire, death and high Cs. But it will give them disquisitions on aesthetics, gondolas and a love affair with a silent dancing boy.

Death In Venice, first performed in 1973 and based on Thomas Mann’s novella of the same name, is dedicated to Britten’s lifelong partner Peter Pears. The opera’s hero, Gustav von Aschenbach, is an ageing writer convinced that Venice is the ticket to peaceful artistic retirement. Instead, Venice brings Aschenbach a fleeting second youth awakened by the beauty of a young Polish boy.

Prague State Opera’s Death In Venice, led by Japanese director Yoshi Oida and German-based conductor Hilary Giffiths, is a co-production with music festivals in Aldeburgh, Bregenz, and Opéra de Lyon. It will be performed 4, 10 and 12 March at the Prague State Opera, in English with Czech supertitles. (That was a mistake: they should have put up English supertitles as well, because the language is lost entirely during the ensemble work.)

State Opera baritone Alan Geoffrey Oke, widely acclaimed for his performances as Gandhi in Philip Glass’s Satyagraha at the English National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera last spring, crafted an introspective, vocally impassioned Aschenbach. Peter Savidge (The Traveller and six other roles) was dramatically effective – often funny — but his vocal technique was too inconsistent and his voice didn’t quite have the agility called for by the role’s vocal acrobatics. William Towers (The Voice of Apollo) added a brilliant dimension to the production with his immense, sonorous countertenor.

The three-hour production comes across as a sensitive portrayal of Britten’s heady material, despite the unexplained presence of a TV displaying close-ups of strawberries. George Seurat-inspired sets paired pointillism with Britten’s sparse, percussive leitmotif. Daniela Kurz’s choreography maximized the work’s long, orchestral interludes.

Death In Venice is a gut-wrenching work steeped in the composer’s own sense of impending death (he postponed major heart surgery to finish the work and died some three years after its premiere). It is generally seen as a quasi-autobiographical work and while well-received at its opening it has not achieved the popular success of Peter Grimes or Billy Budd.

In all his works, Britten is known for his ability to create musical dissonance that doesn’t alienate listeners, and his final work is no exception.

For example, the opera’s dramatic tension culminates in a moment of personal crisis for Aschenbach, who has been watching his sexual identity shift beneath his feet. Britten then drops his protagonist into a harmonic trapdoor at a moment of maximum confusion. Chords are torn from their keys and hurl themselves into a discordant knot, which is tied together with strings of sound that Britten carefully wove into the first and second acts. The effect may sound ear-splitting – it is actually more haunting. The work then slowly unravels itself back toward tonality and Aschebach’s death.

Though Britten used a simple plot line – an old man visiting Venice finds love and death – he created a masterpiece of meaning. Prague’s production of it is well worth seeing.

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