Britten: Death in Venice

Britten: Death in Venice

by Richard Hickox
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Britten: Death in Venice

It's an odd coincidence that two major adaptations of Thomas Mann's 1912 novella Death in Venice appeared close together in the early 1970s. Luchino Visconti's film draws in viewers not only through gorgeous imagery but also by repeatedly quoting the melancholy Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony. Benjamin Britten's opera, his last, may be less welcoming, but to devotees of the composer's music, there's no question that it's one of his most important scores. As with so much of Britten's music, the lead role of Aschenbach was written for Peter Pears, Britten's long-time partner, and Pears's recording (now available in the second volume of Decca's Britten collection) has long been the definitive one. This excellent Chandos two-disc set, boasting the impressive tenor Philip Langridge as Ashenbach, a solid supporting cast, and superb sound, offers a compelling alternative. Langridge brings out the expressionistic unease of Aschenbach's music, composed in a recitation-like style somewhere between Monteverdi and Schoenberg's sprechstimme, while the muscular-voiced baritone Alan Opie sings his seven secondary roles just as persuasively, jumping from the high-flying part of the Elderly Fop, for instance, to the earthier Dionysus. Counter-tenor Michael Chance takes the small role of Apollo -- completing the Nietzschean Dionysian/Apollonian duality explored in this opera -- while members of the BBC Singers fill out the assortment of gondoliers, merchants, travelers, and others that give the opera life. Conductor Richard Hickox leads the City of London Sinfonia in a lucid yet detailed performance of this sparsely modernist score, which brilliantly evokes the sounds of Venice -- church bells, a café band, the cries of gondoliers -- through the power of suggestion rather than blunt mimicry. The gently chiming percussion that signifies Tadziù, the beautiful young Polish boy that is the object of Achenbach's obsession, is especially well captured by Chandos' engineers. Opera lovers who cotton to the high-wire antics of Verdi and Puccini may find this work too cerebral for their tastes, but aficionados of 20th-century music shouldn't think twice about picking up this outstanding addition to the Britten discography.

Product Details

Release Date: 03/22/2005
Label: Chandos
UPC: 0095115128022
catalogNumber: 10280
Rank: 182900


  1. Death in Venice, opera, Op. 88

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Britten: Death in Venice 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Benjamin Britten was a composer far beyond his time, a musician with a genius for orchestration, for intellectually stimulating and emotionally profound operas, and a man who is one of the few composers who has been able to write in the English language and find the music hidden there. His final opera is a tough one, a challenging story (Thomas Mann) translated into a dignified libretto by Myfanwy Piper, and a work that is primarily a monologue for tenor set against myriad scenes that change as quickly as the wind. When Britten composed 'Death in Venice' he was in his last days of heart disease and though he never saw the opera composed for his lover, brilliant tenor Peter Pears, he did hear the premiere at Aldeburgh on his radio. The opera was first recorded in 1974 with the original cast (Peter Pears, John Shirley-Quirk, James Bowman with Steuart Bedford conducting) and for obvious reasons subsequent recordings feared comparison. Fortunately, now some thirty-two years later there is a splendid second recording, a recording so fine that for this Britten devotee is equal to the original - and in some ways better!Philip Langridge inherits the near impossible role of Aschenbach, the aging, brilliant, detached 'Apollonian' who through a series of recitatives and encounters with a 'traveler' decides to go to Venice to revive his spirit. Included in this recording is the original first recitative of Aschenbach, a character-defining piece Britten out of uncertainty removed from the premiere (and the subsequent recording). It is now essential. Langridge has a fine tenor voice, perfect enunciation, and he creates an Aschenbach that conveys the tortured downfall of this famous character. He is amazing. Britten and Piper created Aschenbach's nemeses (The Traveler, The Elderly Fop, The Old Gondolier, The Hotel Manager, The Hotel Barber, The Leader of the Players, and the Voice of Dionysus) to be sung by one baritone. And it is the choice of Alan Opie for this recording that adds great dimension to these changing roles. His is a voice rich and supple and completely able to portray different characters while simultaneously reminding us that they are interrelated and each part of Aschenbach's illusionary view of his world.Add to this the superb countertenor voice of Michael Chance who intones Apollo in the major scene that contrasts the Apollonian vs Dionysian conflict that is central to Mann's story and the 'cast' of main characters is complete. The many small roles are all well sung. Richard Hickox conducts the City of London Sinfonia with insight into all of the complexities of the score and creates a lush and languid sound that is thoroughly appropriate for 'Serenissima' - Venice. The overall momentum of this opera is devastatingly beautiful, and for one who thought that the original Pears/Shirley-Quirk/Bedford recording could never be bettered, this recording is absolutely as fine and deserves to be proudly beside the other on the shelf. Highly Recommended on every level. Grady Harp