Death in Venice | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Benjamin Britten's valedictory opera, written three years before his death in 1976, is perhaps his most personal work for the theater. Adapted from Thomas Mann's 1912 novella, it's the tale of an aging writer, Gustav von Aschenbach, wrestling with spiritual malaise and his obsession with a beautiful adolescent boy he encounters during a vacation in cholera-infested Venice. The themes--the conflicts between Apollonian discipline and Dionysian sensuality, the creative and destructive power of love--are universal, but the material's homoerotic aspects signaled a belated coming out for the discreet English composer: is there any other opera in which the hero sings a romantic aria to a handsome youth, set to text from Plato's Phaedrus yet? Thoughtfully dramatized by Britten and librettist Myfanwy Piper, Death in Venice is a darkly compelling work. Its skillful, beautifully orchestrated score ranges from confessional recitative, expressing Aschenbach's emotional repression, to exotic Delphic chorales evoking classical Greece, his cultural touchstone. Today's enlightened audiences might find Aschenbach's crisis melodramatic, but the cases of pedophile priests give the opera resonance. Chicago Opera Theater's production is a long overdue local premiere that also marks the 30th anniversary of the opera's debut at the Met. British singer Robin Leggate brings a rich tenor to Aschenbach (a role written for Britten's lover and muse, Peter Pears), and Australian countertenor Tobias Cole is gripping as the golden, nearly nude sun god who propels Aschenbach toward madness and tragic self-knowledge. The chorus and orchestra under Alexander Platt's baton are excellent. Director Ken Cazan's minimalist staging also features dancer Anthony Peyla as the enigmatic boy. His role, though silent, is all-important: this is truly an opera that should be seen as well as heard. Friday, May 7, 7:30 PM, Sunday, May 9, 3 PM, and Thursday and next Saturday, May 13 and 15, 7:30 PM, Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph; 312-704-8414.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.

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