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Writing his final opera "Death in Venice," Benjamin Britten, who knew he was dying, looked at his life's work and stripped it bare. Routinely dependent on the kindness of strangers for his opera plots, he was as exacting of his librettists as Verdi was. For "Death in Venice," he turned to the 1911 Thomas Mann novella that mused openly on the perils of beauty, the calamities of Eros and the likelihood of older men being brought down — to the abyss — by erotic attraction to younger men. There is no transfiguration, no Liebestod, just rotten strawberries, wilted flowers and music of deflated yearning.
What stands in its way of being regarded as Britten's greatest opera, though it is, is the work's relentless coupling of aching desire and raw pain as inseparable twins. He denies his audience the luxury of seeing the subject matter as anything but what it is. The Madrid Teatro Real production by Willie Decker, just released by Naxos (CD, Blu-ray), bets on beauty, albeit broadly defined, throughout. No other recording has realized the opera more fully.
Turning to Mann's tale, set in a city Britten himself loved, could not have been easy. It has no redeeming characters, no Ellen Orford or Captain Vere, and roving gangs of unsavory smaller characters chafe at the protagonist without let-up. For Gustav von Aschenbach, German "master writer," hell truly is other people.
The spent German genius is staring down the barrel of writer's block at its most primeval, his premonition of death and fear of failure grotesquely inflating his sense of personal superiority. His Venice getaway to recharge his creative imagination soon reveals him, most painfully to himself, as a pathetic clown masquerading behind a veil of lofty ideas and ideals as full of holes as Venetian lace.
The role was written for Peter Pears, Britten's life partner, to whom the composer would have had to explain nothing. The Madrid production suggests it may have been written in expectation of tenor John Daszac, its most accomplished and daring exponent to date. Previous Aschenbachs have been overcome as much by the character's windy poofery as by the fetching beauty of the Polish boy Tadzio.
It's one of Myfanwy Piper's best librettos for Britten, but it begins with a line that could topple a Jon Vickers: "My mind beats on," Aschenbach laments, repeatedly. The terror for Aschenbach — "but no words come" — is explicit, but the stumbling line and a generation of gay jokes about it, completing the phrasal verb with its opposite, do no tenor favors.
Daszac's fiercely unapologetic characterization surmounts all hurdles. Aschenbach's philosophical musings have never been more clearly declaimed. The conviction at the core of Daszac's vocal acting is as close to a saving grace as any Aschenbach has had. Certainly the role had never been sung better, making Aschenbach's self-pitying grandstanding more than the crooning of a sad old man.
His foil, the baritone ingeniously enacting all the other main characters, who freak Aschenbach out, tear him down and, occasionally and studiously, prop him up is the equally astonishing Leigh Melrose. His physical acting — much of it mincing to the very edge of low drag-bar parody, his arms flapping like boneless albatross wings — vaults into a caricatured falsetto on command while singing comparable music, at lower pitches, when sympathizing with Aschenbach. He's at his most demonic in his final appearance as Dionysus at the nadir of Aschenbach's fall. The offstage voice of Apollo is, as required, rendered hauntingly by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo.
Conductor Alejo Perez makes the score's starkly differentiated musical styles cohere to the extent that the orchestra "goes away," in the best sense. Stage director Decker proves wise in all things: apart from a few historical photos of the city during the interlude, he eschews attempts to recreate Venice visually. Instead of a unit set, he supplies a unity of set recombinant pieces, moved to create different scenes so seamlessly that the audience feels the relentless pace of Aschenbach's "vacation" drama.
His work is of a piece with Athol Farmer's choreography, to the extent that the several appearances of the young male dancers, Tadzio's "friends" (who, tellingly, also harass him), merge smoothly with Decker's liquid blocking. The dancers and non-singing performers are as carefully crafted as the main players. Pit-stage coordination this complete is rare, each illuminating the other.
Tadzio, a dancing not a singing role, can undo directors as easily as he does German master writers. Tomasz Borczyk is the most hypnotic in my long experience of the work, credibly but not pruriently young, by turns terrified, repulsed and, if not explicitly attracted to, sympathetically drawn to Aschenbach, in whom he may, as much as he can bear, see his own future. There's something like innocence in the boy's full nudity early on, if only there.