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Alan Oke, front, as Gustav von Aschenbach in the Canadian Opera Company production of Death in Venice. (MICHAEL COOPER/Michael Cooper)
Alan Oke, front, as Gustav von Aschenbach in the Canadian Opera Company production of Death in Venice. (MICHAEL COOPER/Michael Cooper)

Music: Opera review

Death in Venice: An enthralling meditation on homoerotic longing Add to ...

Death in Venice

  • By Benjamin Britten
  • Canadian Opera Company
  • Alan Oke, tenor
  • Steuart Bedford, conductor
  • At the Four Seasons Centre Saturday night

Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice seems at first blush almost the opposite of an opera. Its protagonist is a rather wizened German novelist with writer's block, trying to free up his skill and rediscover his youth by lurching out of his deep closet of self-discipline and philosophical rectitude into the bliss and torture of a mostly wishful dalliance with a narcissistically beautiful Polish boy.

And yet, as its Toronto revival at the Four Seasons Centre Saturday night demonstrated in an almost magically gripping way, it is an operatic masterpiece whose singularity is a potent part of its strength.

The main part of that strength, however, is the scorching authenticity of its core elements - for both the author and the composer who created it. Thomas Mann and Benjamin Britten weren't just making up a perverse and exotic little melodrama: They were baring their own souls.

In his novella Death in Venice, Mann, husband, father and revered German author, was according to his widow sublimating a true episode in his life. When the couple visited Venice, Mann became besotted with a beautiful Polish boy, even though he only stalked the boy in his imagination.

Mann himself had insisted his novella was really not about "anything homoerotic at all."

He said that "passion as confusion and as a stripping of dignity was really the subject of my tale."

Britten, on the other hand, grappled all his life with guilt over his own powerful homoerotic longings for boys.

So the subject of Mann's novella, though perhaps seen from different perspectives by author and composer, was a serious and potent matter for both, and this authenticity at its roots raises their joint creation well above the quaint or the merely bizarre.

Strongest of all its claims to be an operatic masterpiece is the astonishing freshness, delicacy, beauty and vigour of Britten's score. Stroke after stroke of its orchestral underpinning, enthrallingly unfurled in Saturday's opening performance by the Canadian Opera Company orchestra, conducted by Steuart Bedford, disarms the ear and the senses.

The strange rippling evocations of the Venetian seashore; the tingling use of gamelan sonorities to encompass the children's games; the eerie bonging of the bells of Venice; the hair-raising threat in the huge outburst of sound announcing the terrible dawning of protagonist Gustav von Aschenbach's self-knowledge - the score contains all these and dozens of other dramatic revelations, large and small.

The singing is largely the province of Aschenbach himself, who is never off the stage. Scottish tenor Alan Oke sang the role superbly, with a flexible lyrical sound, wonderful pitch and clear words, conveying all of Aschenbach's tortured speculations and desires within the very specific reaches of Britten's melodic limning of his character.

Baritone Peter Savidge was consummate and smoothly various in seven roles of travellers and service people who assist Aschenbach's downfall. Countertenor William Towers was perfection as Apollo, with even clearer enunciation than Oke's. Bass baritone Tom Corbeil was excellent as the travel-bureau clerk who finally tells Aschenbach the truth about the cholera epidemic devastating Venice.

The only slight disappointment among the principals was Adam Sergison in the silent dancing role of the boy Tadzio. He is neat and trim and an adroit dancer, but his flirting was stiff rather than tempting - there should be a touch of Lolita in his androgyny - and his beauty hadn't the charisma to carry it over the footlights.

Tom Schenk's sets looked as if they could be rolled up in a suitcase for easy travelling, and the projections were merest tokens of what they were meant to suggest. But Japanese stage director Yoshi Oida was able to help the actors subtly and imaginatively create the sultry Venetian environment, and choreographer Daniela Kurz made the young people's beach games exhilarating. Sandra Horst's sure hand with the COC chorus added much to the spell the music cast.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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