A “Death in Venice” to Top Them All

Donald Runnicles

By Larry L. Lash

Opening night! In opera, those words generally signal tuxedos, tiaras, top-priced tickets and “Tosca” or “Traviata.” Or even Renée -- the diva, the perfume, the dessert.

Once again, Theater an der Wien broke from all convention with its season opener: a new production of Benjamin Britten’s 1973 “Death in Venice” --hardly the stuff of a gala night on the town.

I couldn’t attend until the fourth performance, on Sept. 24, and was amazed to find the house packed to the rafters (including the uppermost standing-room, partial-view section). As the veteran of six productions of Britten’s final opera including the Met’s 1974 recreation of the world premiere starring the composer’s life partner, Peter Pears, I must opine that none other has come near this achievement.

It’s difficult to know where to begin, but let us single out the superhuman performance of American tenor Kurt Streit in the role of fictitious “master writer” Gustav von Aschenbach. Pigeonholed as a Mozart specialist, Streit has convincingly been proving his immense versatility and is currently finding Britten a comfortable fit (Peter Grimes is on his wish-list). Streit is also known for his innate theatricality, and it has never been more in evidence.

Drawn from Thomas Mann’s novella, “Death in Venice” has always been a “problem opera” in that it is basically a series of very long monologues for Aschenbach. Interspaced among them are brief, pungent scenes dominated by a bass-baritone who plays eight roles (collectively referred to as The Traveller), myriad one-line parts (the program lists 47 additional named roles plus children and supernumeraries) and an unusually large amount of orchestral music, either in the form of interludes or dance sequences. Given the sheer length and single theme of Aschenbach’s soul-searching – his mid-life discovery of feelings of homosexuality, somewhat simplified into a struggle between the Apollonian and Dionysian in Myfanwy Piper’s libretto – it can easily become one big snore-fest.

But director Ramin Gray has taken advantage of Theater an der Wien’s intimacy and torn down the fourth wall. Rather than have us watch some old guy furtively cruising young Polish boys on the beach while singing to himself, Gray has had Aschenbach address us directly, sometimes unnervingly so, with houselights at full. And Streit, it seems, makes direct eye contact with every audience member over the course of the opera.

Slightly hunched and sporting black-rimmed glasses frequently removed and used as a prop when making a hand gesture, Streit at first stands unnoticed onstage as the audience wanders in (Donald Runnicles similarly appeared at the podium with no discernable entrance). He then walks downstage and peers at the faces in the house for an uncomfortably long time before beginning the opening words – “My minds beats on” – in a whisper. In an incredibly calibrated performance, the voice grows in size and color in proportion to Aschenbach’s gradual admittance of his feelings and his resolve to make contact with the boy called Tadzio.

For once, here was a Tadzio who actually looked and acted the part of a slightly vain young man on the verge of sexual awakening (“You notice when you’re noticed,” observes Aschenbach). Gray deepens the role -- portrayed here by the stunningly beautiful teenage Brazilian dancer Filipe Pinheiro -- so that Tadzio becomes a foil to Aschenbach rather than a mere distant object of lust. In another departure, this Tadzio begins ever so subtly to flirt with the older man, much to the consternation of his mother (elegant former Bolshoi ballerina Alexandra Kontrus), another role given more significance.

Further adding to the dancers’ theatrical impact is Thom Stuart’s choreography, an engrossing mix of classical and modern dance with athletics, seamlessly merging the non-singing action with the sung, an aspect of the opera in which many have stumbled.

As the Traveller, Russell Braun, his curly dark locks tipped in devilish red, stole every scene in which he appeared, filling the house with his lustrous voice and over-the-top characterizations, which ranged from a ghastly over-rouged elderly fop to an ingratiating chatterbox barber.

Britten calls for a huge orchestra with many references to Balinese gamelan music in the sporty dance sequences, and the RSO-Wien was spectacular under Runnicles’ sensitive baton. He never once covered a single word in the many monologues and dialogues, despite the lush, sometimes exotic scoring that propels the story dramatically.

Jeremy Herbert’s simple-but-elegant beach set – basically a white box, two wind machines and a huge swath of billowing fabric – benefits immeasurably from Adam Silverman’s lighting, most memorable when a distant ochre cloud confirms rumors of a cholera outbreak. Kandis Cook’s elegant period costumes are effectively counterbalanced by her unabashedly erotic white bathing trunks for the boys, with Tadzio appearing in only a flesh-colored dance belt in Aschenbach’s dream sequence.

Ultimately, it was the searing emotional depth of Streit’s portrayal that dominated the show, an unforgettable performance as close to perfection as any I’ve witnessed.