Welsh National Opera: Death in Venice at Birmingham Hippodrome - Review

Welsh National Opera: Death in Venice at Birmingham Hippodrome - Review

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Posted 2024-05-12 by dpmfollow

Sat 11 May 2024


There is an elegiac quality to Benjamin Britten’s swansong opera Death in Venice with its tale of art, love, desire and obsession.

Based on Thomas Mann’s novella, it tells the story of the ageing German writer Gustav von Aschenbach who, suffering from writer’s block, takes a trip to Venice in the hope of opening the floodgates of his imagination.

There he spots a visiting Polish family and their beautiful young son Tadzio. Aschenbach becomes increasingly fascinated with Tadzio, convincing himself he is searching out beauty to aid his creativity when in fact his fascination descends into infatuation and sexual desire.



Britten wanted to ensure a clear separation between Aschenbach and Tadzio and in his opera he wrote the pieces for the Polish family as dance roles with no words spoken or sung. Director Olivia Fuchs takes this one stage further by casting the roles as aerial circus performers – ensuring they are out of reach for Aschenbach morally and socially, but also physically.

As Antony César’s Tadzio flies above Peter Van Hulle’s Aschenbach we are only too aware that this ideal of beauty as well as its incarnation in this young man are unattainable for the gradually fading writer.

WNO has joined with NoFit Stage circus company for the production and the guiding hand of circus designer and director Firenza Guidi ensures the family are telling their own story. They are not simply a ghostly presence but a very corporal family with their own relationships and connections.

Much relies on the ideal of Tadzio and César’s sinuous moves alongside his physical appearance with long blonde hair and naked chest spotlighted against a dark background are reminiscent of an angel as he circles in the air – while ensuring the audience are also aware of his sexual allure for the writer.

Peter Van Hulle steps into the role of Aschenbach for just the Birmingham performance on this tour but he is dexterously comfortable in a part which is no mean feat as he is onstage for most of this three-hour production. From his first moments when we see his frustration as a writer, we hang on his every word, watching in dismay as he descends into first infatuation and then even mania as he loses sight of his true self and becomes a parody of an old man attempting to attract a younger one.

Roderick Williams has the taxing job of playing a host of different roles from the eager-to-please hotel manager to the over-enthusiastic barber and the scary Dionysus, switching between the different parts with true alacrity and capturing each character in a few moments.

One of the bonuses of this production is that it also offers various members of the WNO chorus the chance to take on different roles from bellboys to strawberry sellers so we see the full extent of the talent of the wider company.



The chorus as a whole take on the guise of Edwardian bystanders who wander Venice as the city gradually becomes gripped by a cholera epidemic. They provide a backdrop to the story but also remind us that Aschenbach’s hope that only he and Tadzio will remain alive from the sickness is an empty dream.

Nicola Turner’s sets are minimal with the hotel being signified largely by a giant vase or a picture frame for the window and the gondolas created by a box and an oar. The streets and canals of Venice, as well as the sea are recreated digitally with projection designed by Sam Sharples. The haunting nature of the production is also greatly helped by Robbie Butler’s lighting which creates focal points from the spinning bodies of the circus performers.

Britten’s music is hugely complex and the WNO Orchestra, conducted by Edmund Whitehead, rise to the occasion giving us every note with clarity and depth.

Death in Venice is much like the waters of the lagoon, seemingly calm with little going on, and yet full of depth and danger. Fuchs has completely grasped all that the work can offer and has plunged into those depths giving us a multi-faceted work rich with delight.

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285820 - 2024-05-12 11:24:52

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