If The Beatles arguably made the greatest contribution to British popular music in the 20th century, one man can certainly lay claim to supremacy when it comes to British opera. He is Benjamin Britten and this year being the centenary of his birth, there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy his works in London.
The rarely performed Gloriana begins at the Royal Opera House next week, Glyndebourne’s Billy Budd comes to the Proms in August, but to experience his work at its very best, you may need to look no further than the Coliseum.
Death in Venice of 1973 is the composer’s final opera. Based on Thomas Mann’s eponymous novella of 1912, it tells of a writer who becomes obsessed to the point of madness with a youth that he repeatedly sees while in Venice. Given that the pair never speak to each other, it might not feel like obvious dramatic material but it has spawned a classic film (starring Dirk Bogarde) as well as Britten’s own masterpiece.
Its success in several media can be attributed to its thematic richness. The novella is grounded in the German Romantic tradition of seeing the action occur across the realms of nature, society and dream, a formula that has proved the basis of many a great opera. In addition, the dilemma that the artist faces as burning passion confronts his deep-held ascetic values introduces themes prevalent in ancient Greek literature, and generates palpable emotional intensity.
Deborah Warner’s production for English National Opera captures the spirit of the piece with cool shades of blue and yellow that highlight the repressive atmosphere, while the slickest alterations in scenery can instantly transform a tranquil lagoon with a single gondola into the crowded, cholera-infested streets of Venice. Silhouette and ballet are also used to brilliant effect so that a full race can be convincingly rendered with the participants moving just a few feet.
John Graham-Hall as the writer has a highly pleasing voice that seems to have perfect diction inherently built into it. Andrew Shore proves the most brilliant of actors in the multiple roles that Britten requires him to play. Tim Mead shows off his excellent countertenor instrument as the voice of Apollo, while Sam Zaldivar, despite never opening his mouth, has a presence that makes it understandable why the youth should stand out for the writer. Add in Edward Gardner’s excellent conducting and this surely has to rank as one of the best ways to experience Benjamin Britten this year.
Until 26 June (five performances) at the London Coliseum, Saint Martin’s Lane, Charing Cross, WC2N 4ES with a start time of 7.30pm. For tickets (£25-£90) visit the Coliseum website.
Londonist received a complimentary ticket from the ENO press team.
Photo: John Graham-Hall as the writer enunciates every word immaculately, © ENO.