Britten in the time of cholera - ENO's sparkling season

Fri Jul 5, 2013 6:57am EDT
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By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters) - Everyone knows better than to eat the yellow snow, but Benjamin Britten's bleak and searing "Death in Venice", in a stunning revival in London and now in Amsterdam, makes clear it's also a bad idea to eat mushy strawberries during a cholera epidemic.

Britten's last opera, based on the Thomas Mann novel of the same name about a German writer suffering from writer's block who finds inspiration and love in the person of a beautiful young boy in Venice, and also death from eating contaminated strawberries, has been by far one of the best received productions this year by the English National Opera (ENO).

"The central performances are stunning," Michael Church wrote in The Independent after the mid-June premiere of the revival of director Deborah Warner's 2007 original. At that time Ian Bostridge sang the doomed writer Gustav von Aschenbach, a role that Britten wrote for his life companion, Peter Pears.

"For two unbroken hours John Graham-Hall brilliantly holds the stage, utterly believable and with every phrase pellucidly clear," Church said, referring to the British tenor who has stepped into Bostridge's shoes and mastered one of the most demanding of all tenor roles.

For most of the opera's two and half hours, Graham-Hall as Aschenbach is center stage and almost always singing - which makes the role a rival as an endurance test to Wagner's cobbler-poet Hans Sachs in "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg". Graham-Hall wouldn't have it any other way.

"It is the role I wanted to do all my life, it's always been top of my list since I heard it when it was first performed in the '70s with Peter Pears singing," Graham-Hall said in a telephone interview from Amsterdam, where the ENO production opened this week for three performances at The Amsterdam Music Theatre.

"It's a fantastic piece, incredibly well written...and this may sound like a stupid thing to say but it's actually not hard...because Britten kind of does all the work for you and the work Britten doesn't do is done by the amazing production I'm lucky to be in."

Praise like that is music to the ears of John Berry, the ENO's artistic director. He took over London's decidedly second opera company, after the Royal Opera at Covent Garden, in 2005 at a time when critics were writing such scathing reviews of ENO productions it seemed like the company might not have a future.   Continued...