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What genius thought of replacing dancers with gymnasts in an opera deserves a standing ovation of their own.

This is love in the time of cholera - a marvellous movement to music with haunting performances by a virtuoso company.

We are talking about Benjamin Britten’s dark and some say semi-autobiographical version of Death in Venice performed by the Welsh National Opera at the Bristol Hippodrome on Saturday night, April 28.

This company is brilliant but the storyline of an elderly widower fantasising over a beautiful boy is at times an uncomfortable watch although it is more pornographic in thought based on the youth's seemingly very young age than physical touchy-feely action.

The dark and dammed 1971 film Death in Venice is from the 1912 novella of the same name by German author Thomas Mann starring Dirk Bogarde as Gustav von Aschenbach and Björn Andrésen as Tadzio which comes with a soundtrack by classical composers Mahler, Lehár and Beethoven.

This is a score by Britten, our greatest if somewhat flawed 20th century composer.

WNO replaced matinee idol Bogarde with tenor Mark Le Brocqu, a heroic singing Anthony Hopkins complete with Welsh lilt, who while struggling with writer’s block and suppressed sexuality ogles the 19-year-old Belgian aerialist Antony César as he performs in white Y-fronts.

The CGI set is bleak but effective from a bookcase study to black and white images of the waterways of Venice and the ‘keep the aspidistra flying’ Orwellian hotel foyer.

The Grand Hotel des Bains with its faded Edwardian elegance wouldn’t get five stars in any tourist guide.

The doom and monochrome gloom are lightened (slightly) when comic Casanova character (hinting of scandal) appears as a bowler hatted Charlie Chaplin clown type, oh and there is a golden Apollo who looks as if he stepped from the stairway in the fantasy sequence in Grease.

In a ‘for whom the bell tolls’ sequence the company dressed in virginal white summer clothes parade carrying parasols en masse on stage, another 1984 moment is that the plebs wear grey.

Winged angels hang from the heavens in a breathtaking aerial display without a sign of health and safety harnesses or safety nets.

And watching Aschenbach lament from his room with a beach view of ‘echoes in lagoon of nothingness’ as his life ebbs to a close you think hurry up and end it all.

This is the opposite of the frantic pace of Hotel Budapest and it is peppered with poetic Edward Lear linguist nonsense and fruit symbolism all set to song with poses straight from the 1950-60s Health and Efficiency magazine.

A stunning kind of loving spectacle which probably like the rambling pages in the middle of Midnight Children could have done with some editing.

But what you would/could leave on the cutting room floor goodness knows certainly not the score which is probably the ‘dark side of perfection’ illustrated by images of Michelangelo’s statue of boy David.

Olivia Fuchs directs and Leo Hussain conducts the live orchestra while the circus acrobats steal the show.

The blurb says ‘In the search for beauty and meaning, the renowned author Gustav von Aschenbach travels to Venice on a whim. In the sultry atmosphere of a cholera epidemic, with the scirocco blowing, he falls in love with Tadzio, a youthful aristocrat who is staying in the same hotel with his family. As Aschenbach projects his loneliness and desire on him, fantasy and imagination intermingle with existence. His obsession progresses to a fever pitch as he becomes increasingly divorced from reality.’ 

Carol Ann Deacon

FOOTNOTE 1: The performance was halted by a disturbance at 10pm which spilled into the foyer. Lots of shouting. The curtain came down for half an hour and the audience was instructed to remain seated. When we left there was a distinct police presence by the exit doors and security was very visible. Well done WNO for the show must go on

FOOTNOTE 2: The scaffolding on the front of the Bristol Hippodrome is finally down.

PHOTOS: Johann Persson 

WNO Death in Venice - Mark le Brocq (Gustav von Aschenbach) and Antony César (Tadzio) - ph
WNO Death in Venice - Roderick Williams (The Leader of the Players), Mark le Brocq (Gustav
WNO Death in Venice - Mark le Brocq (Gustav von Aschenbach) and the cast of Death in Venic
WNO Death in Venice - Antony César (Tadzio), Riccardo Frederico Saggese (Jaschiu) and the

Welsh National Opera Review: Death in Venice

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