Richard Bratby

Think flute-playing Sir Keir will rescue opera? Look at Labour-run Wales

A beautiful, troubling new Death in Venice from WNO and a blazing Macbeth from Mid Wales Opera – but the Welsh Arts Council doesn't seem to care

Exceptional: Mark Le Brocq as Gustav von Aschenbach and Antony Cesar as Tadzio in Welsh National Opera’s Death in Venice. Credit: Johan Persson

A tale of two opera companies from the Land of Song. After its distinctly gamey new Cosi fan tutte, Welsh National Opera has sprung dazzlingly back to form with a new production of Benajmin Britten’s final opera, Death in Venice. It’s directed by Olivia Fuchs, in collaboration with the circus artists of NoFit State, and in a word, it’s masterful.

Fuchs’s Serenissima is a city of shadow, its landmarks glimpsed distantly in smudged, restless scraps of black and white film. The tourists and locals wear monochrome period dress; only Aschenbach (Mark Le Brocq) is in a noncommittal grey. The colour has drained from his world and from the peripheries of the stage he gazes, impotent, at the figures who dance and sport in the light, played by the acrobats and aerialists of NoFit State. It’s not just the muscular teenager Tadzio (the panther-like Antony Cesar) who lives on an elevated plane: the whole Polish family are figures of fantasy – frequently airborne and unashamedly, gracefully physical. There’s a lot of semi-nudity, and it’s not only the male form that gets fetishised.

Those who think lovely, flute-playing Sir Keir will rescue opera should look at Labour-run Wales

It’s been suggested that Britten’s extended beach ballet sequence saps the momentum of the drama, and that seems unarguable. If performers this good and an imaginative vision this strong can’t prevent it from dragging, then nothing can. But that’s Britten’s fault, and he’s not around to authorise rewrites. In every other regard, this Death in Venice is strange, beautiful and troubling, with WNO chorus members providing crisply etched cameo roles. The orchestra, under Leo Hussain, shimmers with the iridescence of decay, playing with needlepoint finesse as Britten dissects Aschenbach’s disintegrating personality.

Le Brocq is absolutely exceptional, by the way: one of those anti-virtuosic virtuoso performances where the artist vanishes so completely inside the character that it almost feels tactless to mention the technical niceties – his bleached, aching tone; the way it loosens and ripens as Aschenbach loses his grip, and the exemplary clarity and sensitivity with which Le Brocq articulates the text. Roderick Williams plays against him as the various avatars of Death; just camp enough, vocally, to induce the requisite queasiness, with a playful dash of the demonic. This is a strikingly original staging of a complex and grown-up opera, and it drew a good house and an ovation on a wet night in Llandudno. It’s a stinking shame that cuts by both Welsh and English Arts Councils mean that this is one of only five full productions by WNO this season.

In Newport, a similarly large audience cheered Mid Wales Opera’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth: sung in English, directed by MWO’s artistic director Richard Studer and conducted with swashbuckling verve by its music director Jonathan Lyness, who’d also prepared the 12-piece touring orchestration. It’s amazingly effective: without a full score, you wouldn’t have noticed anything missing. As Lady Macbeth, Mari Wyn Williams blazed over the small chorus (which sounded as formidable as WNO’s) with a voice like a searchlight, and ‘La luce langue’ was every bit the show-stopper it should be. Jean-Khristof Bouton as Macbeth was an unfamiliar name but it’s one to bookmark: a tormented lion of a man, colouring Verdi’s melodies a hundred shades of black and rolling them out in grand, soul-shaking paragraphs. A second chorus drawn from the local community filled out the big scenes.

There’s absolutely no artistic compromise about this touring version, which has been scaled down only in the most literal sense. This was romantic opera at maximum voltage, and opera novices who experienced it on tour in Wrexham, Newtown or any of the other under-served communities where MWO regularly performs must surely have been knocked backwards. That’s typical of this company under its current leadership: a minuscule budget is offset by a profound understanding of what works, musically and dramatically, and an unshakable commitment to deliver it to the highest standard (I once saw Studer mime the entire role of Torquemada in L’heure espagnole in a school hall in Bishop’s Castle, after the singer had twisted his ankle).

You know what’s coming next, don’t you? MWO has had its entire public subsidy cut by the Arts Council of Wales and, barring a miracle, will have to close at Christmas for want of the kind of money that donors at Garsington or Grange Park routinely pony up over their interval picnic. Apparently the rationale for this act of cultural self-harm is that MWO doesn’t perform in Welsh: a charming bit of nationalist bigotry, and possibly the first case of an opera company being defunded for being too accessible.

Meanwhile English opera buffs who cherish the delusion that Arts Council England is in thrall to the wicked Tories and that lovely, flute-playing Sir Keir will shortly gallop to their rescue should look at Labour-run Wales and be very careful what they wish for.