by Melissa Bridges
I had my doubts about The Canadian Opera Company’s current production of Benjamin Britten’s final opera Death is Venice, as I am not normally a fan of twentieth century opera. However, I was blown away by the heart wrenching and masterfully created extravaganza currently playing at The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.
Based on Thomas Mann’s novella, the opera revolves around an aging German novelist, Gustav von Aschenbach, a conflicted writer who travels to Venice to find new inspiration. He becomes drawn to the pride and youthful beauty of a young Polish boy, Tadzio, amidst an outbreak of a cholera epidemic in the decaying city.
Tom Shenk’s set is the perfect manifestation of the starkness of Britten’s score. Moveable wooden planks cover a shallow pool of water to create the boardwalk of the Venetian lagoon. Throughout the opera, images of water, sand and fire are projected on to a hanging screen, which is turned over at key moments to become a mirror. The lighting design allows for the water to reflect eerily onto the paper panels that make up the backdrop and on the arch that frames the stage.
Japanese Director Yoshi Oida’s staging is simple and incorporates elements of his Kabuki theatre training. While visually he creates beautiful images, particularly in the second act where fire is used evocatively in the dream sequence, I found that he had the singers spending too much time standing in centre stage addressing the audience.
I was really impressed by the amazing performances of the entire cast, particularly that of tenor Alan Oke in the role of Aschenbach. He is not only on stage for the entire production, but he brilliantly negotiates the demanding score with ease that demonstrates his incredible technique. I also really enjoyed Perter Savidge’s performance of the seven baritone roles throughout the opera. However, my favorite performance of the night came from bass-baritone Tom Corbeil as the small but key role of English Clerk in a Travel Bureau.
Ironically, the roles of Tadzio, his Polish family and seven playmates are portrayed by non-speaking dancers. Daniela Kurtz and Katherina Bader’s modern choreography lightened up the otherwise somber mood of the piece and kept the audience engaged during slower sections of the first act.
Steuart Bedford who conducted the opera’s première in 1973, leads The Canadian Opera Company’s orchestra through Britten’s remarkably dramatic score with ease. There were a few brief moments when I felt like orchestra started to overpower the singers on stage, but they were quickly reigned in by Bedford.
If you never been to see an opera, Death in Venice would not be one I would recommend for your first go. Although the production was superb and I clearly enjoyed it, this not your typical melodramatic, over the top plot filled with catchy arias and melodies that will have you humming as you exit the theatre. However, if you are have any interest in modern opera, then Death in Venice’s intense examination of human emotions with a gut-wrenching ending that brought me to tears, is not to be missed.
– Death in Venice is playing at The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (145 Queen Street West) until November 6, 2010
– Shows times are on specific dates (details available here) and are generally at 7:30PM, except matinees at 2:00PM
– Ticket prices range from $35.03 – $214.70, and rush tickets available at $12 every night at 11:00AM the day of
– Tickets are available online, or through the box office at 416-363-8231
Photo of David Hurwitz, Peter Salvidge, Alan Oke and Caleb McMullen by Michael Cooper