Early 2024 sees two new productions of Benjamin Britten’s final opera Death in Venice. The first opened on 26 January at Theater Heidelberg, directed by Magdalena Fuchsberger with Dietger Holm conducting the Philharmonisches Orchester Heidelberg. The second, from Welsh National Opera, debuts on 7 March at Cardiff’s Millenium Centre, before a national tour; it is directed by Olivia Fuchs and conducted by Leo Hussain.
Britten’s 1973 opera, with a libretto by Myfanwy Piper, adapts Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella about the final days of acclaimed writer Gustav von Aschenbach. Weary at the outset of its two acts, an uncanny encounter outside a cemetery spurs Aschenbach to travel to Venice to refresh his listless imagination. His stay is punctuated by a series of disconcerting encounters – all sung by the same baritone – as well as a growing obsession with the young Polish boy Tadzio travelling with his family (all represented by a small corps de ballet) which incites Aschenbach’s own intimations of mortality and decline. As this erotic fascination grows, the city is gripped by a cholera epidemic, which finally claims Aschenbach’s life.
Alongside Britten’s sinuous evocation of the winding Venetian streets and the city’s oppressive atmosphere, a distinctive musical feature is the large ensemble of tuned and untuned percussion which accompanies Tadzio’s danced sequences and operates almost independently of the rest of the orchestra. Its otherworldly and enchanting character draws on Britten’s longstanding fascination with gamelan, also showcased in his 1956 ballet The Prince of the Pagodas. Steuart Bedford, who conducted the premiere of the opera at the Aldeburgh Festival and its debut recording, created an orchestral suite from its music in 1984; the 27-minute work will be performed by Mark Elder and the Hallé in the closing concert of the 2024 festival on 23 June at Snape Maltings this summer.
In Heidelberg Aschenbach is sung by Winfrid Mikus, with James Homann as the Traveller and countertenor Franko Klisović as the Voice of Apollo; WNO’s production sees Mark le Brocq, Roderick Williams, and Alexander Chance take the principal roles, with Tadzio danced by Antony César. On 11 May Peter van Hulle sings Aschenbach with Edmund Whitehead conducting; Timothy Morgan steps in as the Voice of Apollo on 26 March.
WNO is the fourth UK company to tackle Britten’s valedictory work in the last decade, following ENO’s 2013 revival of Deborah Warner’s acclaimed 2007 production – screening at the Aldeburgh Festival this summer on 22 June – Opera North’s presentation the same year of Yoshi Oida's 2007 version, and David McVicar’s new staging for the Royal Opera House in 2019, whose sold-out run of performances starred Mark Padmore and Gerald Finley.
In 2020 Theater Heidelberg mounted Britten’s dramatic 1975 cantata Phaedra for mezzo-soprano, strings, percussion and harpsichord; the production starred Zlata Khershberg and was directed by Andrea Schwalbach, who staged the work alongside selections from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen and John Casken’s Trackway of Time to create Summernight-Dreamers.
Death in Venice is in rep at Theater Heidelberg until 17 May; WNO tour England and Wales from 7 March to 11 May.