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Opera review: Death In Venice / Orphée


Death In Venice

Royal Opera House ★★★★★

JUST as Venice recovers after its worst flooding in recent times, it seems fitting that Britten’s opera gets a devastating new production at the Royal Opera which conjures all of the pleasures and dangers of this shifting, protean city.

Based on Thomas Mann’s novella of the same name, Death In Venice tells the story of an ageing German novelist on holiday in La Serenissima in 1911, who becomes obsessed — from afar — with a beautiful young Polish boy (dancer Leo Dixon, superb). A mysterious demonic figure who appears in different guises (gondolier, barber, hotelier) seems to lure the conflicted Aschenbach to his destruction.

Is the opera about forbidden love? The eternal conflict of Apollo and Dionysus? Madness? Yes, to all of those, and more: and director David McVicar provides a stupendously powerful period-costume staging in which enticing ambiguities flow. Vicki Mortimer’s set — shifting columns, arches, a blue horizon — creates a version of Venice so gorgeous you’ll want to book your holiday there, and the golden late-summer lighting (Paule Constable) is miraculously suggestive both of delight and decay.

There are no weak links. Tenor Mark Padmore, exquisite of voice, presents Aschenbach’s physical and spiritual breakdown with extraordinary detail and insight, and baritone Gerald Finley (above) is terrific in each of his demonic guises. Countertenor Tim Mead (Voice of Apollo) adds another layer of vocal luxury, the smaller roles are uniformly excellent, and Richard Farnes conducts with an unerring instinct for drama and psychological truth.

In repertoire until December 6.


ENO ★★★

IT’S odd that another semi-surreal opera about a writer facing his destruction is on elsewhere too. Philip Glass’s Orphée (based on Jean Cocteau’s 1950 film) is now at ENO in a production by Netia Jones. The staging — presented on a largely black-and-white set — seems to be a bit too beholden to the imagery of the movie, both visually and dramatically, to find its own mojo, but there’s some gorgeous singing and playing.

Until November 29.