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Here’s looking at you, kid: (l-r) Chiba and

Burden in Death in Venice.

A Portrait of Obsession
By B.A. Nilsson

Death in Venice

Glimmerglass Opera, July 25

For his final opera, Benjamin Britten turned to an unlikely source: Thomas Mann’s spare, brooding monologue of a novel, Death in Venice. Unlikely because it provides few opportunities for operatically rich conflict; there’s more Monteverdi than Verdi in this piece.

But Britten turned those dramatic limitations into the strengths of this compelling piece, all of which shine through in a brilliant new production by the Glimmerglass Opera. Mann’s protagonist, a writer named Aschenbach (sung by William Burden), finds himself creatively stilled as he faces middle age. He is discovered on a heavily raked stage, in a once-opulent room that serves, through the use of chairs and ghostly people, to suggest a Munich cemetery. Here a mysterious Traveler (David Pittsinger) suggests that he “travel to the south,” setting off the story’s chain of events.

Possibly obeying the repeated opening words of the piece—“My mind beats on”—set designer Donald Eastman uses this room throughout the opera, where it serves variously as a hotel room or lobby, a waterway, a barbershop, a beach. Aschenbach is in every scene, and the room can be seen as the self-containment into which he has remanded himself. With the help of the finely nuanced lighting by Robert Wierzel, each transition and scene works convincingly and, when necessary, unsettlingly.

But it’s the music that does most of the work in conveying the obsessive qualities of Aschenbach’s character. A plangent, 10-note b-minor scale suggests the writer’s obsessive orderliness, and it will recur throughout the opera. Venice itself is heralded by a pleasant chorus (“Serenissima”), which turns into a barcarolle as Aschenbach is ferried by the Charon-like figure of a rogue gondolier, who willy-nilly brings him to the Lido and then vanishes without payment.

The Hotel Manager who welcomes him also is sung by Pittsinger, who also sings the roles of an Elderly Fop, a Hotel Barber, the Leader of the Players and the Voice of Dionysus. He does an impressive job of differentiating these characters even as they’re all presented as mirrors of the personality sides that Aschenbach represses. To allow himself any of the freedom these alter-egos display might save him, but he remains on a doomed path sparked by his infatuation for a Polish boy whom he sees at the hotel.

The boy, Tadzio (Scott Chiba), is a dancing role, as are the roles of his family (two sisters, mother and governess) and several other youths. Although most of the dance consists merely of stylized walking, also given to Aschenbach and other singers, the young boys frequently frolic on the beach and in the hotel. Movement director Nicola Bowie, who also plays Tadzio’s mother, keeps the kids credibly busy, stylized without seeming too choreographed—probably the best route to take without importing a full-blown dance troupe.

Tadzio never vocalizes, but is thematically represented by an A Major theme given to a percussion-rich orchestra. Aschenbach’s musings are in the form of extended recitatives to a free-flowing piano accompaniment. It’s difficult music, but its cumulative effect is made all the more powerful by the skill of the ensemble, under the reliably accomplished baton of music director Stewart Robertson.

Director Tazewell Thompson debuted at Glimmerglass with a brilliant Dialogues of the Carmelites three seasons ago. He does well with dark, brooding works like that and this, making effective stage pictures where the piece needs to be static, and otherwise flowing the action around in a compelling, effective way.

It’s a star turn for Burden, on stage for close to three hours, singing his heart out as his Aschenbach shifts from detachment to passion, from joy to despair. As a singer, Burden sweeps effortlessly through the difficult work; as an actor, he’s magnificent.

This certainly isn’t an opera for all tastes, but it gives you a ride you’ll not soon forget.

Lonely and Lovely

Le portrait de Manon

La voix humaine

Glimmerglass Opera, July 24

Two short works with
provenances in earlier works, but what a contrast! Love is scorned in both, but Jules Massenet’s Le portrait de Manon is a tuneful, trifling melodrama, while Francis Poulenc’s La voix humaine looks at loneliness in an age of technology.

La voix humane (the human voice) was a long monologue as penned by Cocteau; Poulenc turned it into a spellbinding 45 minutes for soprano alone. The biggest challenge of theater lies in its limitations, and the best theatrical experiences are those that triumph over such restraints. By default, the actors typically are stuck on a proscenium stage; Poulenc upped the ante by putting his protagonist, Elle (Amy Burton), on the telephone throughout.

But director Sam Helfrich did away with that restriction, and thus threw away a rich dimension of the piece. I would applaud his decision to allow Burton to range freely about the stage if it in any way enhanced the piece, but the set-up seemed pointless except to offer the fetishistically wonderful moment when Elle hangs her stockings and underwear to dry.

We live in an age of hands-free phones, but in 1959, when La voix humane premiered—and certainly within memory of all who will see this piece—that umbilical cord was a tangible frustration, like the anachronistic party line Elle shares (and which adds to her misery as other callers butt in). How much more challenging to keep her at that phone, which otherwise sat on its own little table at stage left.

David Newell’s set displayed, on every possible surface, a repeated image of a man’s suit-jacketed torso, a phone on a desk before him. It was distractingly unnecessary: This should be a piece about minimums.

But forget all that. The reason to see this is Burton’s performance. She’s Miss Lonelyhearts from Rear Window given voice; she’s coming to grips with the fact that she’s been dumped. She’s been play-acting the silly girl for too long, and tries to discover, in spite of her pain, a truer voice. Burton’s nuances were extraordinary, an able match to Poulenc’s witty, searing score, nicely conducted by Stewart Robertson.

Massenet wrote Le portrait de Manon to cash in on the fantastic success of his earlier Manon, but it has the look of a deliberate quickie. Still, the guy wrote great tunes, and added a few new ones to the recycled Manon motifs. Theodore Baerg is the aged Des Grieux, after 20 years still lamenting his beloved, whose stylized image smiles down from all over Newell’s much more successful set. He forbids his ward, Jean (Colin Ainsworth), to marry Aurore (Kristine Winkler) because Aurore isn’t high-born enough. And so her father, Des Grieux’s happy-go-lucky friend Tiberge (Bruce Reed), comes up with a plan. Excellent singing, and director David Lefkowich (an Albany native) keeps us in the period with his imaginative staging.

Being unfamiliar with any other edition of this work, I can’t say what the new one, by Andrew Bisantz (who also conducted), brings to us, but it’s a pleasant trifle well worth its place on this double bill.

—B.A. Nilsson

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