Love in the Time of Cholera

Death in Venice poses many questions, among them: moustache or no moustache?

After my battle with flu, I spent much of January and February in Deborah Warner’s ENO production of Britten’s last opera, Death in Venice, bringing it to La Monnaie in Brussels and the Grand Théâtre in Luxembourg. Reviving an opera’s production, in which one has been deeply involved, 18 months after its first outing, raises many issues, theatrical and otherwise.

As far as the design and technical crews are concerned, the change of venue is endlessly infuriating, as they try (and in the end, after long days and nights of tech-ing, succeed) to recapture the atmosphere conjured up by lines of sight, lighting cues, video installations and so on, in spaces which, on this occasion, were utterly different from the originating house. The London Coliseum is a big Edwardian variety theatre with a panoramic stage. La Monnaie is a classic late 19th-century opera house, smaller and rounder. The Grand Théâtre is a 1960s confection: multipurpose, small and without boxes.

In Luxembourg, the structure of the theatre was such that I – playing the long, complex and interior role of the frustrated literary lion, Gustav von Aschenbach – could see the faces of the audience (not so in Brussels or London) and hear every whisper in the wings, requiring a different sort of concentration and a different engagement with the public. Aschenbach’s monologues, revealing the tortuous thought processes which he hides from the world around him, are very different in character when you see the audience, for obvious reasons. I am reminded of Fintan O’Toole’s brilliant dissection of Shakespearian soliloquy, his realisation that the notion of talking to yourself is not part of Elizabethan theatrical practice, that when Hamlet says “To be or not to be” he is self-consciously, naturally, engaging the audience, like a stand-up comic, a world away from the misty pieces to camera in Laurence Olivier’s film version.

Rehearsing for a revival brings new discoveries, but the recovery of familiarity comes first. The practical, apparently trivial details that determine much of the emotional contours of a performance – move downstage here, pick up the notebook at the end of suppertime, smoke a Toscana cigar at this point rather than a cigarette – are semi-enshrined in the assistant’s score, and often impossible to pick out with any exactitude from the darkly-lit reference video which was often made before the show had reached crystallisation. Yet what I realised, despite my self-caricature as a disembodied type, an intellectual performer, is that after a proper period of rehearsal and immersion in a role which one at the same time invents and discovers, the moves and rhythms of the performance are written in the body as much as the music is programmed into the vocal muscles. The sensations and nuances flood back.

There were changes. In 2007 I grew a Thomas Mann lookalike moustache which my wife and children rather took against. This time, I somewhat ineffectually sprouted a grizzled and greying beard that had even more of the ageing effect the costume designer Chloë Obolensky was aiming for. The impact of actually growing the beard or moustache, rather than wearing a false one, is important in terms of what one thinks acting actually is. For some, to act is a matter of impersonation – Olivier donning a putty nose for Richard III or a pair of false teeth for Shylock, or the increasing tendency in movies (the sort that used to be called biopics) for the actor to become unrecognisable in terms of accent, mannerism, physical build and so on. The transformation can be, is meant to be, astonishing, miraculous.

To make the simple transition from clean-shaven to bearded represents, on the other hand, in its very simplicity and subtle realism, a conception of acting as a matter of rehearsing and performing towards an accommodation between the character as presented in the text and one’s own self. As I’ve already said, you invent and discover. My own experiences, tendencies, habits, moods and memories have to be subsumed into the journey from professional dignity, repression and order to disorder, humiliation and transfiguration which is Aschenbach’s in Death in Venice. That’s why it is important to me that the novella and opera are not simply about a failing writer who falls inappropriately in love with a teenage boy. The impact of the story and the way it is told is far more universal. It’s like Flaubert saying: “I am Madame Bovary.” We are all Gustav von Aschenbach.

If December and the first half of January were spent battling influenza, my time in Brussels and Luxembourg was all about pretending to do battle with cholera. Mann’s title Death in Venice has three aspects – the death of Aschenbach himself, the uncanny personification of death in the strange figures who accost the writer during his reckless sojourn (a theme which the dying composer amplified to chilling effect in the opera), and the cholera which is rampaging through the city. It’s often been thought that Mann was exaggerating the extent of the cholera on the 1911 trip which inspired the book, but in fact the last great cholera pandemic did reach Europe, Italy in particular, killing 116 people in Venice, 873 in Naples and 6,146 in the country as a whole. It inspired a government cover-up that threatened non-compliant doctors with jail and falsified the historical record.

Hanseatic, wealthy Hamburg (Thomas Mann was from neighbouring and Hanseatic Lübeck) had suffered a shocking outbreak only two decades earlier, 8,616 people dying of the disease in 1892. But cholera, over and above the historical account, is ideal for Mann’s purposes in Death in Venice. Chillingly swift and undignified in its impact upon the human body, it is the master metaphor of the novella, its power as a metaphor only enhanced by the fact – one I took on board in the past month – that Mann is resolutely ambiguous as to whether Ashchenbach actually dies of the disease. “Disease,” as Mann was to write in The Magic Mountain, “is only love transformed,” and Aschenbach’s sickness is really of the soul.

Britten and his librettist, Myfanwy Piper, brilliantly intensify this by getting Aschenbach to emphasise his thirst, his thirst for change at the beginning of the opera-terrible thirst being, of course, one of the early symptoms of cholera. At this stage of course, there can be no question that he actually has the disease, but the lines are being blurred, in the same way that the smeary low tuba sonorities at the end of the act confuse and muddy the declaration of his secret love. Ambiguity is a feature of all Britten’s operas, as he himself acknowledged, and it is a strangely unoperatic quality, one of the keys to his modernity, and unsettling. What I have yet to rationalise is how as an actor one can characterise that ambiguity. Does Aschenbach contract cholera? Do I need to know?

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