Reviewed by Judy Richter
The San Francisco Opera is staging what it considers its first production of Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice. The company did stage it in 1975 and 1979 as part of its Spring Opera season at the Curran Theatre, but this is the work's first appearance at the War Memorial Opera House.
Britten based his libretto on Thomas Mann's novella of the same name. It is the story of a successful German writer, Gustav von Aschenbach, facing his 50s and a creative crisis as he ponders his belief in order rather than passion. In order to work through his crisis and perhaps find inspiration, he decides to go to Venice. There he becomes obsessed with a 12-year-old Polish boy, Tadzio. So great is his obsession that even when he learns of a cholera epidemic, he can't bring himself to leave.
Britten's writing lacks flowing melody. Rather he uses wide jumps and dissonances in his vocal lines. The lusher sounds and much of the musical drama lie with the orchestra. Conductor Donald Runnicles, the company's music director, elicits all of the tonal color from his fine orchestra for a thrilling performance.
In addition to the writing, part of the reason why the vocal line seems less accessible is that American tenor Kenneth Riegel, who plays von Aschenbach, has a somewhat grainy voice. He seems to capture the character's emotions in his acting, but his singing is less gratifying. On the other hand, Italian baritone Alfonso Antoniozzi, who plays seven different characters that von Aschenbach encounters, has a wonderfully fluid voice matched by fluid movements.
Even though the production is sung in English, supertitles are necessary. Riegel's diction is not sharp, and Antoniozzi has an Italian accent. The importance of supertitles was quite apparent during the Sept. 17 performance, when they weren't working for the first five minutes or so. Riegel was almost impossible to understand, as was Antoniozzi. Interestingly, they were much more understandable once the supertitles began working again.
Despite Riegel's shortcomings, the production works well in a number of ways. Stage director Lotfi Mansouri, the company's general director, stages the action intelligently, allowing it to flow naturally. Wolfram Skalicki's set design makes liberal use of rear projections to allow rapid scene changes. He frames the set in reflective material that creates some interesting effects as Tadzio and his friends (all dancers) play on the beach, which is upstage and lower. Hence, the audience sees much of that action reflected overhead at an angle.
Costume designer Susan Benson has created handsome turn-of-the-century garb for the large cast, and Michael Whitfield's lighting enhances the visual effect as well as the drama.
The pivotal role of Tadzio is a non-singing part played by a dancer, Christopher Newnam. Though Newnam is a fine dancer and has the ethereal look that would captivate Aschenbach, he looks and is much older than 12. However, it would be difficult to find a 12-year-old boy who has the dance skills that Newnam brings to the role.
The production is choreographed by Michael Smuin, who is the former artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet and who now has his own dance company in San Francisco. Smuin has a theatrical flair that he uses well here.
Supporting roles are ably filled by countertenor Michael Chance as the offstage voice of Apollo, bass-baritone David Okerlund as a travel agent, members of the SFO Chorus in a variety of roles, and others.
Although a great deal of creative effort and talent has gone into this production, it needs a stronger Aschenbach to succeed fully, especially since it doesn't allow the audience to sit back and enjoy the beautiful music as it would with more familiar works by the likes of Mozart, Verdi and Puccini. Nevertheless, it's laudable, a work that deserves to be seen again when the right singers are available.
For more information, see the San Francisco Opera home page.