The production is a landmark in several ways. It marks the first time that ENO has ever presented Britten's 1973 opera, one of his very last works. The young conductor Edward Gardner is giving his first performances as ENO's music director. And tenor Ian Bostridge is singing for the first time the central role of Gustav von Aschenbach, the aging and world-weary writer who travels to Venice in search of inspiration, only to become obsessed with a beautiful Polish lad and get caught in a cholera epidemic.
Bostridge was known to be quite nervous about taking on Aschenbach — not only because, at 42, he's rather young for the part, but also because of the long shadow cast by such great veterans as Philip Langridge, not to mention Britten's own partner Peter Pears, who created the role at age 62.
"[He] need not have worried," write Fiona Maddocks in the London Evening Standard. "His more youthful account, hair swept back, with moustache and chapeau d'artiste looking like Wyndham Lewis, has its own poignancy ... [he] has never sounded better. His vocal control and diction are outstanding." In The Times, Morrison makes a similar assessment, and then continues: "And his stage presence is mesmerising. Gawky, stiff and standoffish at first, he starts to disintegrate physically — imperceptibly at first, then to devastating effect as he claws at his deckchair like a drowning man clutching flotsam — as the taunts of [baritone] Peter Coleman-Wright's brilliant succession of sinister creeps begins to prey on his mind, and his obsession with Tadzio (danced with loose-limbed grace by Benjamin Paul Griffiths) grows all consuming."
As for the other major debut in this production, Warwick Thompson writes for Bloomberg News that "The real star of the show is conductor Edward Gardner, making his debut as ENO's new music director. He controls the different sound worlds of the opera with masterly skill, and draws taut yet flexible playing from the orchestra." In The Guardian, Erica Jeal finds that Gardner "makes much of the score sound beautiful, especially the gamelan-style percussion that glimmers into life at each sight of the silent Tadzio."
Death in Venice receives six further performances from tomorrow night through June 13 at the Coliseum in London. More information is available at www.eno.org.
* * * * * * * *
All photos by Neil Libbert.