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Death in Venice has never admittedly been one of my favourite Britten operas, but as with all Britten if you get used to his style it is well worth hearing. This Death in Venice film version is just great. I'd also seen the 1990 production with Robert Tear and Alan Opie, and I was actually expecting to prefer that one for the spontaneity you always get from a live-performance. As a matter of fact, while I did like that production, I prefer this. The costumes and sets here are much more imaginative, evoking Venice perfectly and almost reminiscent of the famous 1971 Visconti Death in Venice. I also prefer the conducting here, the nuances that are given here make the music even more seductive than it already is. The orchestral playing is really marvellous and the direction draws you right into the story, apart from a couple of scenes where it did seem a little too aimless. The camera work is exceptional, with the clever cutting, superimposition and dream-like sequences it perfectly manages to reflect the characters' inner thoughts and feelings. The performances are just great on the whole, apart from the Tadzio who is awful. Robert Gard doesn't quite have Peter Pears' charisma(originally scheduled for the role before his stroke) but as Aschenbach he sings wonderfully, has precise diction and looks good. I have to say though I do prefer Robert Tear also in the role. Deanne Bergsma's Polish Mother is truly excellent, and James Bowman is a commanding and beautifully sung Apollon. But the show belongs to John Shirley-Quirk, he is multiple roles and with his confident and appealing baritone voice and authoritative dramatic ability he is simply brilliant, especially as the Traveller. In conclusion, apart from Tadzio and a couple of aimless scenes, this film version is great especially for Shirley Quirk, the visuals, camera work and conducting. 9/10 Bethany Cox
I recently saw the film of English National Opera's 2013 production of
Death in Venice. It was interesting to compare it with this 1981 film,
directed by Tony Palmer. The ENO production makes effective use of
back-projections of Venetian locations whereas Palmer uses film of
actual Venetian locations spliced together with scenes shot in a
studio. It looks good, although the effect was somewhat marred in the
fuzzy print that I saw.
This is very much a film, rather than a filmed opera. As the protagonist, Aschenbach, reflects upon his situation Palmer illustrates his thoughts. Also, controversially, he uses voice-over so that Aschenbach is seen silently musing while he sings on the soundtrack. Normally I would hate this but it seems to work and it helps in understanding the psychologically complex story to be able to see what Aschenback is thinking about. I could hear every word that tenor Robert Gard sang, something that could not be said for the ENO production where I had to listen with a synopsis in my hand. Only occasionally did I get the impression that I was watching a film with an operatic backing track.
John Shirley-Quirk successfully manages the seven cameo roles of various irritating people that Aschenbach comes into contact with. The object of Aschenbach's affection, the boy Tadzeo, played by Vincent Redman, is of course a non-singing, non-speaking role. To be honest, I found him less than beautiful beside his two beautiful sisters. Aschenbach, of course, does find him beautiful and describes his sisters as plain. I did enjoy the scene where the slender youth descends into a Turkish bath watched by fat naked Italians, a scene that is not in the opera but one that is used by Palmer to open out the action.
I like Britten's score with its sensitive orchestration and Balinese tinkling. Mifanwy Piper does her usual expert job on the libretto. Ultimately though this not one of my favourite Britten operas because I think the source material, the novella by Thomas Mann is too thin and, frankly, rather distasteful. I can understand why Britten empathised with this story of a dirty old man following an adolescent boy around Venice but it is a theme that probably does not have universal appeal.
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