There’s Plato in them canals

There’s Plato in them canals

(l – r) David Hurwitz, Peter Savidge as the Old Gondolier, Alan Oke as Gustav von Aschenbach and Caleb McMullen in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of Death in Venice, 2010. Photo by Michael Cooper.

“We abandoned the good habit of printing the list of motifs for every opera that contains them,” lamented the Death in Venice conductor Steuart Bedford before proceeding to play on the piano the key motifs for us, the audience at the COC’s Opera Exchange this past Saturday. There is the motif associated with all the shadowy characters played by the baritone (the passenger, the gondolier, the barber, etc); the plague has its own motif, the beautiful view has one, Venice of course too, the presence of Tadzio’s mother is always announced with her motif, and Tadzio couldn’t have been left without one. In accordance with the leanness, you could say discretion, of the work itself, some of these motifs are only a few notes. Although under the normal circumstance the motifs and paying attention to them is only there so post-Wagnerian musicologists will have something to do with their lives (props to you, my friends), in Death in Venice they are another important layer to discern and appreciate. It’s a sparse but very complex – or as the Grove Book of Operas put it, restrained and intense – musical work.

In the COC’s production of DiV, the reviews have not been lying, this fragile complexity is handled with apt hands. It’s become almost a habit to dress the Venetian guests in elegant white from one production to another, and keep the components of the set in basic geometrical shapes. What makes Yoshi Oida and Tom Schenk’s staging stand out is the innovative use of video. Finally a production that is aware of contemporary visual/media arts, and that is not afraid to use them. At the perspectival center, TS-YO have placed a small video screen that during certain scenes shows video images, during others becomes a tilted mirror, and other times goes off and becomes imperceptible. The video images shown are sometimes abstract, sometimes contain an extreme closeup of an object (which, just like the musical motifs, may come back in a later image reworked), occasionally you wonder if you’re looking at a still or if there’s the time component after all. All this matters hugely in the context of a scene taking place before your eyes. One wonders if the screen communicates with the score in any way. Something to watch for at the next viewing.

Alan Oke, front, as Gustav von Aschenbach in the Canadian Opera Company production of Death in Venice, 2010. Photo by Michael Cooper.

Those of us who love Proust will find distant echoes of Noms de pays: le nom, and À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs in the costumes and the atmosphere. But this is not where literary allusions end. There’s a strong Colm Tóibín presence here, and through his Master, a dash of Henry James as well. Tóibín is great with the prose of unactualized desire, and contrary to the notion (which I hold on even dates too), not all gay men lit is about getting it on (nor all lesbian lit about never getting any). There’s a remarkable tradition of writing of the male same-sex desire being halted before it can even articulate itself, and Death in Venice (and Tóibín, and possibly Henry James) are its notable reps.

What makes Britten’s opera (not Mann’s novella) in certain accord with Nabokov’s Lolita is the set of characters sung by the baritone, which is the opera’s own Clare Quilty. Those are the kind of characters who by some whim of gods always know more about us than we do ourselves — those able to read our actions one step ahead of us. Much in Venice depends on the baritone, and Peter Savidge in this production inhabits his many roles with gusto. In the scenes when he is not singing, the intelligent stage direction has him sitting in the dark corner of the stage next to the rack where all his costumes are hanging. He observes Aschenbach incessantly. When his ultimate role gets revealed and as Dionysius he sings of surrender to temptation, we are grateful that Britten and the librettist Myfanwy Piper adopted the Greek (via Nietzsche, probably) and not the Christian mythology. How much worse the text would be if the shadowy character following Aschenbach was some sort of a Mefistofele.

(l – r) Alan Oke as Gustav von Aschenbach and Peter Savidge as the Hotel Manager in the Canadian Opera Company production of Death in Venice. Photo by Michael Cooper.

That Piper and Britten created a philosophical, Greek narrative and not a Catholic morality tale illustrates another fundamental in the texture of the opera, Aschenbach’s Platonic musings on the role of art and beauty and whether they distract and mystify or sharpen our minds and attune our ethical capabilities. When Aschenbach is alone with his thoughts, he is given a piano solo accompaniment, with a lot of a capella almost-parlando. On more than one occasion, he seems to channel some of the talkers in Plato’s Phaedrus or the Symposium. Yes, beauty can derail us from our purpose and make us mad with passion, but also “beauty is the only form of spirit that the eye can see,” so “brings to the outcast soul reflections of divinity.” This is classic stuff, expanded on by Plato’s disobedient 20th century niece, Iris Murdoch, which Piper and Britten must have read. (At one point, Aschenbach sounded like he was quoting from the ‘Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists’. I almost squealed. Myfanwy and John Piper knew Natasha and Stephen Spender, who were very close to Iris Murdoch and John Bayley, so they might have known IM personally as well. Still poring over the online Indices of the various memoirs for evidence of this.)

Alan Oke deserves all the praise he’s been receiving in this role, for making the very difficult traits to sing – self deception, resignation in the face of death, inertia, fear of being transparent to strangers, complete aloneness in the world, devotion to a fantasy, and yes, philosophical debates with oneself – so believable. Even diction is so precise that you don’t need to consult the surtitles.

And there is something fantastically befitting about the fact that Tadzio is Pickering-born. A fresh-faced boy next door who was involved in Peter Pan and So You Think You Can Dance Canada, Adam Sergison has just the right CV for the role (did Piper also write artist bios? I wouldn’t be surprised). All this familiarity works well in contrast with the boy’s musical foreignness and his status outside a shared language. Musically, Tadzio is heterophonia – Britten gave him materials of foreign origin, the gamelan-like tuned percussions (says my Grove, so not quite gamelan itself). Britten used the ghost of gamelan in other operas (The Turn of the Screw, A Midsummer Night’s Dream) for the music associated with characters who disturb, among other things, the safe sexual binarism (Peter Quint, Oberon), and this time the “distant, inarticulate figure of the boy who is beloved”* gets it as his identity. I was also reminded of the sound of a toy xylophone played by a child – it was a kind of audio that goes with childhood. All this marks Tadzio as both a regular, familiar boy and in Aschenbach’s vision the most foreign creature possible.

In the last scene with Aschenbach dying, the Tadzio percussion is let into the orchestra as it were and played with the strings etc. of the rest of the score, but although Tadzio’s and Aschenbach’s music are not exactly merging, that they are now being played side by side, that that finally occupy the same segment of time, is an excellent ending.

Choreography is important in DiV, and Daniela Kurz doesn’t disappoint. Very often choreographers maintain and play with elements of the classical ballet in DiV dance, and there’s a good reason for that. There’s that whole conversation with the Apollonian in art, with forms and rules and how far one goes exploding them. The dancing characters also reflect this, most explicitly so in the episode with the Apollonian games. For all this (and the characters’ bourgeois propriety besides), the choreography itself will always be fairly classical. Meanwhile, let’s not forget that the choreographer in 1973 was the legendary Frederick Ashton. **


* Philip Brett, ‘Eros and Orientalism in Britten’s Operas’ in Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology (Second Edition), Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood, Gary C. Thomas (eds.), Routledge 2006

** The Frederick Ashton archives

DEAR READER: If you made it this far, I’m buying you a drink. Apologies for the length of this post, the next production reviewed will probably be Nixon in China, so no literary or philosophical refs to distract from the John Adams fun. I heard him on the radio say something along the lines of “biologically humans are predetermined to seek harmonic cords and a solution to dissonance”.  My man! Fun and games from now on.

4 thoughts on “There’s Plato in them canals

  1. Thanks for this incredibly intelligent and well-written review. It has expanded my reaction and understanding of this opera…surely one of the best all-round productions the COC has presented. Oke declaimed the somewhat dense, abstract text with such simple meaning, that it was completely compelling. I hope more people go to see this, and won’t be put off by what might be perceived as inaccessible, “modern” Britten.

  2. Too bad you couldn’t be here for the Opera Exchange. Among the speakers, the original conductor and the original repetiteur (I think that was his job title — the piano accompanist for all rehearsals before the orchestra rehearsal, and then later piano solo as part of the orchestra… Maybe somebody from the COC will correct me?) who shared their memories of Britten. And they’re both incredibly down to earth, ‘what’s-the-big-deal,-it’s-our-job’ kind of humble. Bedford said that Britten’s illness had kept him incommunicado during the rehearsals and that he only much later saw the performance.

    Later in the day, during the Q&As, the repetiteur (why oh why did I forget his name?!) answered that indeed Britten re-listened Brahms every couple of years so “he can remind himself how bad some composers can get.” They also mentioned that Britten wasn’t the greatest fan of Richard Strauss either. There was some shared speculation that Britten might have harboured some anti-Germanic sentiments, perhaps due to the too close memories of the World War 2, but nobody can know for sure.

    Somebody asked Bedford if he saw Alan Bennet’s The Habit of Art, and he said he tried, but half way through he was so afraid that the Britten character was going to say something like “I hired this utter fool to conduct the piece” that he had to leave the theatre.

  3. I think the repetiteur you’re referring to is Steven Ralls – former head of UofT’s opera school, and also c0-artistic director of the Aldeburgh Connection rectial series in Toronto. Pretty cool that two of the original musicians were there.

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