Death in Venice review - Misfortune and distractions mar WNO production in Birmingham

'Roderick Williams (right) was at the heart of the performance''Roderick Williams (right) was at the heart of the performance'
'Roderick Williams (right) was at the heart of the performance'
Clive Peacock reviews Death in Venice, by Benjamin Britten, presented by Welsh National Opera Birmingham Hippodrome, May 11

Welsh National Opera’s Birmingham Hippodrome performance began inauspiciously with a catastrophic start for début conductor, Edmund Whitehead and tenor Peter Van Hulle, stepping up to the leading role of Gustav von Aschenbach.

Taking over from Mark Le Brocq, whose performances received very positive reviews in the national press, was a challenge not made the slightest bit easier by a nerve-testing false start. With the pit in darkness, Whitehead entered and the audience heard the opening bars before suddenly the action was stopped - the pit lights had not been switched on!

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Director Olivia Fuchs is well remembered in the West Midlands for her imaginative staging of Leoš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen at Longborough Festival Opera. In Death in Venice she interprets the wishes of Benjamin Britten and his long-term librettist, Myfanwy Piper to present Aschenbach’s obsession with Tadzio and his family as circus artists rather than the ballet dancers used in other productions. Fuchs employs an excellent team of gymnasts, aerial artists and tightrope performers to create an ethereal and graceful depiction of the silent family.

In his pre-event talk, Stephen Maddock from the Conservatoire declared the opera had been “spectacularly received”, especially the circus performers. Those individual circus artists are very daring in their acts, very skilled in all they are expected to perform but do take the attention away from the main theme which simply put is ‘how will Aschenbach cope with curbing his obsession for sensual pleasures in the knowledge that he has become an elderly fop?’. During the first seven scenes before the interval the circus performers occupy the stage for much of the time with the result that, post-interval, several pairs of now empty seats were evident in the stalls. Circus-performer dominance had removed much of the space Ashenbach needs to reflect on his circumstances, the periods of contemplation, of introspection as how he should cope with his infatuation of the young Tadzio. Britten’s music is movingly understated throughout with much use of a wide range of percussion instruments - from glockenspiel, marimba, vibraphone, xylophone to tam-tam.

Master craftsman Roderick Williams, in seven roles, was at the heart of the performance; his was head and shoulders above anyone else in the cast with the exception of Alexander Chance and his couple of encouraging cameo appearances. Full marks to Antony César in the Tadzio role.

So much positive praise had been written in the nationals before this Birmingham performance, which, sadly, did not live up to the hype.

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