I broke down and bought this video because I had seen the original Metropolitan Opera production of this work back in 1974 and was mesmerized by the integral use of stage space, acting, dance and miming that made up the production. I had been warned that this production was on a smaller scale because the Glyndebourne stage is not very large, but I was unprepared for the very amateurish sets, costumes and direction, especially in the opening scenes.
Director Stephen Lawless did not use his space particularly well. The sets and costumes (by Tobias Hoheisel) are amateurish and unimaginative. In many ways, it looks like a Red Mill Dinner Theater production of Britten's opera, which is not a compliment. Robert Tear is a good actor, though visually not as good as Peter Pears and vocally not as fine as Philip Langridge on the new Chandos recording of the opera (a five-star production, to be sure). Indeed, other factors contributing to my dissatisfaction are the boxy sonics which do not convey any feeling of atmosphere and the underdone conducting of Graeme Jenkins. I was also not terribly pleased by the costumes worn by baritone Alan Opie in his various guises as Aschenbach's amaneuensis: as the Traveler, he looks like a '40s Nazi villain; as the Elderly Fop, he's dressed exactly like Truman Capote; and as the Hotel Manager, he looks like Erich von Stroheim. I'm sure that there are some viewers who would enjoy this kind of thing, but I found it annoying and distracting.
The production gets better, however, once Aschenbach is on the beach in Venice. The dancers, choreographed by Martha Clarke, are all superb, and their movements blend in beautifully with the surrounding space. I was also intrigued by the way the end of Act 1 was staged: Tadzio glances in Aschenbach direction but NOT directly at him--he is looking at his mother and sister--and Aschenbach does not blurt out "I love you" loudly and insistently, as Pears did, but softly and with embarrassment.
Generally speaking, Aschenbach is a latter-day Faust, an academic so totally involved in his own little world that he has paid scant attention to the world around him until it is too late. The beauty that he finds, and falls in love with, in the form of the teenaged Tadzio, does mirror Thomas Mann's own latent bisexuality, but that's not the point. The point is that Aschenbach is embarrassed by his own attraction, realizing that for whatever reasons there could never be any physical contact between them, and certainly not wanting to be like the Elderly Fop, who he describes as a "young-old horror." Thus he fights his inner self, eventually realizing that he cannot deny his deep attraction for the boy yet also cannot act on it. The dilemma sends him reeling into a deep depression which leads to his decision to stay in cholera-ridden Venice and die there, having nothing much to live for. It is a very deep psychological work that parallels Britten's own feelings about his attraction to the love of his life, tenor Pears. Britten could not deny his love for Pears, yet never felt comfortable defining himself as a "homosexual" because he thoroughly detested that lifestyle.
Whether or not you like "Death in Venice" will, of course, depend on your own values, but to ignore these kind of deep issues because you don't like or agree with them will not make them go away. They are an integral part of human nature, and will exist as long as the human race exists. "Death in Venice" is, at the very least, a mature, adult response to feelings and attractions that one may experience yet never be able to explain. I only hope that, someday, we have a video production that better conveys the overall dream-feeling of this work.
One final note. The video does NOT date from 1973; that is merely the copyright date of Britten's score. If you look at the bottom of the video box, you will see that it is clearly marked (c) BBC TV 1990.