Death in Venice, la Serenissima, the eerily beautiful city sinking beneath the waves that lap through its canals like arteries. But those arteries are bringing the plague from the East and the city’s gaiety is turning dark under the sirocco and the fear that is turning the dream into nightmare. On the adjoining Lido, elegant visitors at the Hotel des Bains still enjoy the dazzle of the light on the sea. The boys still play on the beaches, the little tables on the terrace are still crowded. People still watch and drink their aperitifs. It is to this relaxed and luxurious life that famous author, Gustav von Aschenbach is drawn, leaving behind the cold strictures of old age for the rejuvenating warmth of Southern sun.

In the Royal Opera House’s superb new production of Benjamin Britten’s opera, ‘Death in Venice’, the evocative sets of city and Lido complete the conjunction of words song, music and dance which make this opera so extraordinary. It is directed by David McVicar who I now associate with all the very best that the ROH offers. There is so much to praise that it seems almost unbelievable that Britten’s librettist, Myfanwy Piper, at first thought that the novella by Thomas Mann was impossible to translate into opera. But very soon she understood its powerful visual element and made La Serenissima a central part of the story.

The sets for the first performance at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1973 were painted by Piper’s husband, the artist John Piper. Both were close friends of Britten and his partner, Peter Pears who took on the role of Van Aschenbach at its premiere. In this present production the uniquely demanding role is superbly sung and acted by Mark Padmore. His exquisite tenor conveys all the intellectually precision of a man who has valued order and restraint his whole life but now, in his final days, throws everything overboard in a joyous agony of love and self-destruction. I cannot imagine that even the great Peter Pears can have entered the part so completely.

But Padmore’s evocation of a man overwhelmed by the beauty of a boy could never succeed without a suitable love object. As in Mann’s novella, Von Aschenbach never talks to the boy, even as admiration turns to desire or indeed because admiration turns to desire. The golden youth, Tadzio Is played by a dancer, Leo Dixon who is a First Artist in The Royal Ballet. Again this is perfect casting for Dixon is not only handsome as a young god but a spell-binding dancer, served brilliantly by choreographer, Lynne Page. Tadzio seems to dare us, the audience, to fall in love with his childish leaps, boyish sparring and sculptural poses. It is no wonder that Von Aschenbach succumbs, avidly following every movement of Tadzio’s Polish family, until at last half way through the opera, he admits with a lament of exultation and terror, ‘I love you!’ This is not, of course, for Tadzio’s ears.

From then on his descent into humiliation moves quickly, mirroring the arrival of the plague, sweeping across the seas from Asia. The hotel empties as guests flee and Von Aschenbach, abasing himself ever further, imagines ‘What if all were dead and only we two left alive.’ There is a third all important role, or in fact seven roles, including the Elderly Fop, the Old Gondolier, the Hotel Barber and The Voice of Dionysius, all sung by Canadian baritone, Gerald Finley. With remarkable versatility of voice and gesture, he leads Von Aschenbach onwards to his nemesis.

Finally, there is the music, a complicated exploration of the emotions we see on the stage magnificently executed by the ROH orchestra under the baton of Richard Farnes. The gamelan-like music that accompanies Tadzio emphasizes the innocence of true beauty and purifies the glances that he exchanges with his desperate admirer. The impossibility of these two ever coming together is illuminated tragically by the final chords as Tadzio dances in all the glory of his youth and beauty while Von Aschenbach, his eyes fixed on his beloved, slips into a plague-ridden death.

‘Death in Venice’ was Benjamin Britten’s last opera, written as he himself was slipping into illness and death. Through the opera he confronted the conflicts in his own character. Like Thomas Mann’s fictional hero, throughout his life, Britten had chosen to impose severe control over passionate yearnings. Unlike Von Aschenbach, his resolve never weakened. Yet out of Britten’s anguished imagination came the most fascinating of his operas. In this ROH production, where deep emotion pulses through all of its seventeen scenes, the opera cannot fail to find a whole new generation of admirers.

Music: Benjamin Britten
Libretto: Myfanwy Piper
Conductor: Richard Farnes
Director: David McVicar
Choreographer: Lynne Page