This new recording of Death in Venice is not so much a rival as complementary to the original Decca discs that have had the field to themselves for nearly 30 years now. The virtues of each are different and both more than merit a place on the shelves.
The huge main role of von Aschenbach was, of course, originally written as Britten's last big gift to his lifetime lover and inspiration, Peter Pears. The part fits him like the proverbial glove: it feeds off and shows off all his strengths as a singer whether in recitative or arioso passages. There's that distinctive, slightly croony sound near the top of his range, his ability to sing through and round the passagio with no hint of a join, the variations of colour he can bring to the middle of his voice and so on. Britten understood them all intimately and exploited them as never before in this opera. And, in the Decca recording, Pears delivers the goods immaculately and movingly. Maybe that's why it's taken so long for a second recording to appear.
But Philip Langridge doesn't attempt to imitate Pears. The voice is different and he makes the character very different, very much his own. It's a bit like the contrast between Pears and Vickers in Grimes. This von Aschenbach is much more of a man of action, involved in the world and responsive to it. His fight with writer's block is a real one. One suspects his observations of the hotel guests may just titillate a little creativity back into action. His discovery that 'Eros is in the Word' comes as something of a shock to him, the realisation that 'I love you' even more so, and the nightmare battle between the Apollonian and the Dionysian sides of his nature is truly frightening - for him and for us. His descent into the abyss, from the hysterical heights of the barber's shop through to the death on the beach, is really harrowing. Pears may sing more beautifully in the exquisite Phaedrus aria, but Langridge's subtle colouring of the voice and use of the text make it a heart-breaking experience. More than anyone else who has taken the role since Pears, Langridge offers a real alternative view.
Alan Opie, in the multiple baritone roles, is also complementary to the original, John Shirley-Quirk. Shirley-Quirk excels in those parts that demand more purely beautiful singing - the Traveller, the Gondolier, the Hotel Manager. Opie, on the other hand, is a master at the eccentrics, the camp and the outrageous - the Fop, the Barber and the Leader of the Strolling Players. Honours even, then. And so, too, between Michael Chance and James Bowman as the austere counter-tenor Apollo. Both sing his utterances with strength and beauty of tone.
Where Hickox really scores, though, is in the large part played by the chorus in this opera. He secures from the BBC Singers much tighter, more focused, better intonated choral singing that you'll find on the original Decca discs. The chorus here seem almost like another protagonist, so strong is their contribution. Even the 'Games of the Sun' in this performance don't seem to overstay their welcome as they do in most performances - indeed seem a candidate for extraction like the Choral Dances from Gloriana. And all the soloists taken from the BBC Singers for the multitude of smaller parts match or outshine their Decca rivals.
By now, Hickox's credentials as a Britten conductor are well proven. Bedford on Decca, of course, had the composer's own advice throughout his sessions (Britten was by then too ill to conduct himself). Hickox does not slavishly follow that lead: he has his own point of view. In a recording well up to Chandos's usual high standards, he secures gorgeous sounds and spring from the strings and woodwind in the 'View' motif, a magical rocking rhythm for the many barcarolles in the gondolas and real menace from the plague-ridden tuba which insinuates its presence more and more into the orchestral fabric of the opera.
All in all, a fascinating alternative view of Britten's last opera. And in great modern sound.
First to make clear to the newcomer that the place to start with Britten's operas is the vast and elemental Peter Grimes. If however, you are at home with Grimes then this, Britten's final opera of 1973 is unlikely to disappoint. It is magnificently realised here by the late, lamented Richard Hickox, from whom I have yet to hear a recording of less than outstanding quality.
Though both works are recognisably Britten, Venice is not Grimes. In musical terms it is a rather more delicate construction, demonstrating the rich variety of exotic influences that Britten had accumulated from his travels since the earlier work. The novel soundworld that he created is very much there to serve and carry the voices of the soloists and chorus. The chorus is used with great subtlety and flexibility to represent various groupings and individuals from among the Venetian townsfolk. Echoes from earlier works are to be found here; the use of stroked and beaten drums to signify the pulling of oars by gondoliers was heard before in Curlew River. The ethereal, almost medieval chorus, supported by solo instruments, in alien registers is reminiscent of The War Requiem. The use of xylophone and glockenspiel in rhythms and scales akin to those of Balinese gamelans are much like those heard in The Prince of the Pagodas. Though I see that a musical suite was made from Venice, it could not possibly have the huge power and intensity of the Sea Interludes and Passacaglia that were extracted from Peter Grimes. This would rather have to be something informed by the other-worldly, Apollonian grace that forms one of the significant themes of this drama. Indeed the sense of hovering between two worlds, of Gods and men, of dark and light, rational and irrational, and ultimately life and death, is a special quality which imbues so much of this opera.
In dramatic terms, it is probably the richer artwork. Being a setting of the short story written by Thomas Mann, it is a textured interweaving of a variety of themes, many of them rich in ambiguity, and from which firm conclusions are seldom, if ever drawn. So what are the themes of the opera? The central character is Gustav von Aschenbach, an accomplished and successful writer, committed to the highest artistic values. He is beautifully sung by Philip Langridge, who has devoted much of his long career to performing Britten. There is a large component of soliloquy to this part, such that we, the audience are caught up in his contradictory and not entirely comfortable interior life. A man whose sensitivity and consecration to Art has rendered him somewhat detached and aloof, and who is not much at ease within the world, even within the artistically venerated city of Venice, La Serenissima. Mann's obsession with the Nietzschean polarity of Apollo and Dionysus is another theme played out in the work, with the life of the artist caught up as a victim of their dialectic interplay. Fate, as the will of these gods, conspires to bring Aschenbach to his final tragedy. It intervenes in the form of numerous characters, all sung by the Baritone, Alan Opie, such that the outcome was predestined from the start, and despite feeble efforts at avoidance, there was never any question that the victim could escape the fate ordained for him. Then there is Venice itself, lovingly portrayed by the music as a living thing in its own right, with changing moods from sublime, to fearful, to the strange colourless despair of the final passages.
But of course the primary theme, and the one that was Britten's primary motivation, is that of secret and forbidden love. In this case homosexual love, and its still today more taboo aspect of paedophiliac love. It is these themes that makes this particular opera, quite literally a labour of love, and one that may well have served to hasten Britten's own end (he deferred heart surgery to push through its first production, thereby making himself a sacrificial victim of his own art). Using Mann's novella, and the cloak of respectability conferred by allusions to classical Greece, Britten and Pears, for whom the part of Aschenbach was written, were rather bravely able to bring to the public stage issues the taboos of which were only just being challenged. We know that Britten struggled with his feelings towards young boys throughout his life, and that it cost him much suffering. Perhaps even the final death of the main character, afflicted by guilt and inexpressible affections was in Britten's mind a punishment deserved, a release from pain and temptation, or some insoluble compound of the two?
It is evident that much of the story of Death in Venice was autobiographical to Mann. Mann did in fact go to Venice and become besotted with a young Polish boy named Tadzeo, at the time of a sweeping cholera epidemic. However, ineluctable fate was kinder to Mann; there were no luggage mix ups at the train station, and Mann did manage to leave the city, going on to write several more immense and intricate novels.
This recording was made in 2004 with Brian Couzens in the producer’s chair, so we have the clear Chandos sound of old, resulting in a sound quality full of immediacy, with well-handled dynamics, and good use made of the sound-spectrum balance on stage.
What Britten’s ‘Death in Venice’ lacks in melody – the orchestral score is often driven by percussion – it gains in atmosphere from the very first notes. It is a masterful score with Britten arguably at the height of his powers. There are many riches in the sparse orchestration to discover by repeated listenings.
Philip Langridge as Aschenbach is very good indeed, his crisp but natural enunciation meaning reference to the printed libretto that comes with this two-disc presentation being rare. Alas, the same cannot be said of Alan Opie. For example, his ‘delectable scent, sir’ sounds like ‘delectable censer’. But both Langridge and Opie certainly invest much feeling into their respective performances, and this minor gripe about Opie does not really dent the awarding of what is a five-star interpretation under the baton of the late Richard Hickox.