Richard Hickox, BRITTEN: Death in Venice (Sung in English)

Justin Davidson

By Justin Davidson

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

In 1971, Benjamin Britten was a famous, 62-year-old composer whose heart was full but failing, whose artistic imagination mingled with a sexual attraction for young boys, and who, rather than act on his powerful urges, channeled them into a final dramatic work. That work was Death in Venice, an opera (based on Thomas Mann's novella) about a famous, aging writer in shaky health, whose artistic imagination mingles with sexual attraction for young boys, and who channels those urges into inspiration, rather than gratification. Tenor Philip Langridge's portrayal of Aschenbach is almost creepy in its perfection. The discipline of mind yoked to physical urgency, the stress of guilt and tenderness, the awful satisfaction of gazing from afar — Langridge and the conductor Sir Richard Hickox gather this high-tension bouquet of contradictions into an electric performance.

Britten’s powerful urges, transformed into one final dramatic work.

Because the drama it describes rattles within one man, even as the world appears as spectral projections, Death in Venice may be the perfect opera to listen to on recording. The orchestra — that busy, fantastical orchestra — limns the conflicts of the mind and, with incredible effectiveness, Alan Opie's mercurial baritone voice materializes as the various demons that guide the protagonist towards his inevitable death.