At one time, it was a lapse in taste worth pointing out when a video lingered unduly on the maestro -- when Clouzot put Herbert von Karajan's shamanistic sculpting all over the Verdi Requiem, even during vocal solos; when Carlos Kleiber's conductorial wizardry was deemed of more immediate interest than the on-stage developments of CARMEN and ROSENKAVALIER; when Riccardo Muti was superimposed on the stage picture of WILLIAM TELL's final movement to loom over the characters like the Great and Terrible Oz. Watching a DVD is not the same as attending a live performance, but surely the point is still for us to be involved in the stage action, not pulled out of it at random by pit cameras. I will never stop finding this a bad idea, but I may be getting inured. In recent months I have seen much too much of Zubin Mehta in an ENTFÜHRUNG, a little too much of Phillippe Jordan in a WERTHER, and now rather too much of Bruno Bartoletti in this 2008 La Fenice DEATH IN VENICE. In the latter case, the focus is not just on Bartoletti but on the Fenice forces; however, the democratic approach is no less distancing. Perhaps this is a matter of taste, but when the composer designated off-stage voices, I want to be looking at the stage while the off-stage voices waft through mysteriously, as would happen in the theater -- I do not want the illusion broken by a shot of the chorus lined up formally in the pit. When I am attempting to get engrossed in the downfall of Aschenbach, and Aschenbach is actually on stage, I don't need an educational tour of the orchestra, including close-ups of specific horns and the xylophone.
That personal annoyance aside, this is a significantly above-average release. Not a performance of transcendent greatness, it nevertheless serves an operatic rarity well. This is something I had hoped to be able to say, but could not, about the same house/label's releases of Strauss's DAPHNE (poor in almost every respect) and Korngold's DIE TOTE STADT (nicely designed but stiffly executed and badly sung). The veteran Bartoletti, whose career goes back to 1953, conducts a refined, somewhat subdued, not inappropriately cerebral reading, one sensitive to Britten's piquant and exotic textures, and the orchestra sounds as good under him as I have heard it in recent years. Tenor Marlin Miller is a very young Aschenbach, and no attempt has been made to alter his appearance for stage purposes; the scene in which the Hotel Barber colors his supposedly gray hair will require a bit of imaginative investment. Though composed for a then-sixtysomething Peter Pears, Aschenbach is a vocally challenging role: high-lying, extremely long (the tenor's breaks from the stage are few over two and a half hours), and verbally dense, a test of both stamina and memory. Miller gives a cultivated and sincere performance. There are moments when he lapses out of real sung tone and cannot quite keep Britten's arioso phrases and Myfawny Piper's prolix libretto airborne, as well as patches of hoarseness as he tires in the second half, but the strengths of the performance and the overall degree of difficulty allow one to overlook imperfections -- a classy piece of singing. Scott Hendricks effectively contrasts in the various baritone roles, alternately flattering, menacing, and repelling, seemingly encouraged to camp it up. Smaller parts are variably well sung, but in some cases we do get authentic Italian-accented English.
The stage production is one of Pier Luigi Pizzi's most successful, in part because the opera plays to his strengths. Pizzi's career is even longer than Bartoletti's. He began under the legendary director Giorgio Strehler in 1951 and was a designer of sets and costumes for many years before embarking on his own directorial career in the late 1970s. His productions, in truth, have retained something of the scenic and surface-oriented about them, being stronger on atmosphere and color than on engagement with theme and subtext. Here, the opera itself (owing to Thomas Mann's novella and to the faithfulness of the adapting artists) comes equipped with such a rich text and a strong point of view that one does not sense a missing dimension. Above all this is a beautiful, detailed, and striking piece of craftsmanship, not lush and grandiose but spartan and orderly. The marble hotel set, both Aschenbach's room and the lobby of it, has the highest wow factor, but every new setting is full of eye-catching architectural and chiaroscuro effects, and Davide Mancini's moody video direction does it all justice. The dancer Alessandro Riga makes an ideally young, athletic, and ingenuous Tadzio. The troupe's choreography emphasizes a homoeroticism sometimes assigned to ancillary personnel by Pizzi even when dubiously pertinent (e.g. the preening shirtless sailors in his Barcelona GIOCONDA); here it is thematically appropriate.