July 5, 2013 / 11:00 AM / in 6 years

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

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.

No more.

The ENO, like any heavily government-supported arts company in post-economic-collapse Europe, inevitably has money worries. But Berry can proudly point to a close production link with The Metropolitan Opera in New York, and with other companies in the United States and Europe, plus strong audience numbers and increasingly favorable reviews, to parry the doubters.

And there are doubters. Berry took a punt on a video-cum-chamber opera version of experimental Dutch composer Michael van der Aa’s setting of novelist David Mitchell’s surreal “Sunken Garden”, replete with 3D effects, earlier this year. Some reviewers pronounced it the most ghastly thing they’d seen all season while others were bowled over.

But the comparatively young audiences that packed the house for the relatively short run mounted in the smaller Barbican concert hall were exactly what Berry had wanted to see.

“It’s an experimental piece of incredible ambition that is paid for by four or five international collaborators and none of us would have been able to do it on our own,” Berry said.

He estimated that at least half the audience had been new to opera while the figures were even higher for the London premiere of Philip Glass’s “The Perfect American”, based on the life and death of Walt Disney, and a whopping 70 percent for comedian and filmmaker Terry Gilliam’s version of Berlioz’s “Damnation of Faust”.

Berry is hoping to recapture this season’s hoopla next year when Gilliam is back for a crack at Berlioz’s problematic “Benvenuto Cellini”, radical Spanish director Calixto Beito tackles Beethoven’s “Fidelio” and the ENO offers revivals of two surefire British chestnuts, Britten’s “Peter Grimes” and Thomas Ades’s “Powder Her Face”.

Glass gets another look-in with his Gandhi opera “Satyagraha”, a puppet-filled production by the director-design team Improbable that was a sell out for the ENO in 2010.

The house’s most ambitious offering, however, is “Thebans”, a retelling of Sophocles’s Oedipus cycle with music by British composer Julian Anderson and directed by French-Lebanese director Pierre Audi.

“I think orchestrally the writing will be startling,” Berry said of the opera by Anderson, whom he puts in the same league with other modern British greats like Harrison Birtwistle, Ades and Mark Anthony Turnage.

“And for Pierre Audi to come back to London for the first time in 30 years is really something...It’s a great group of directors next season. I’m really excited, it looks really good.”

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