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This beautifully packaged 4-DVD set by the legendary British director, Tony Palmer, brings together newly remastered versions of four of his films about the life and work of Benjamin Britten.

The highlight is Palmer’s Italia Prize-winning documentary A Time There Was. Originally released in 1979, it traces Britten’s life story through extensive archival footage and a large number of interviews. Peter Pears takes centre stage, particularly towards the end of the film where he describes Britten’s final illness and death with moving candour. Pears’ involvement also means that opera features strongly, providing the narrative thread for understanding Britten’s career. Excerpts from Peter Pears, Billy Budd and Noye’s Fludde are interspersed with evocative images of the composer’s long-time home in Aldeburgh, conjuring up a strong sense of the context that informs his music.

Benjamin Britten and his Festival, made for the BBC in 1967 to commemorate the opening of Snape Concert Hall, naturally puts an even stronger spotlight on Aldeburgh. Not all of the town’s residents were pleased about this, apparently: one particularly outspoken fisherman complains to the camera in his strong Suffolk accent that ‘all bloody night, all you can hear is violins going in the house opposite me – it’s enough to drive anyone up the bloody wall’! A fair amount of material from this documentary turns up again in A Time There Was, but there’s also some superb extra footage from the world premiere production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, starring James Bowman as Oberon, as well as Britten’s church parable The Burning Fiery Furnace. The film’s rather plummy BBC voiceover now seems rather dated, both in terms of its delivery and some of the scripting, but it nevertheless makes for an interesting document of its era.

Essential viewing for opera lovers will be Palmer’s filmed version of Death in Venice, made on location in 1981 with most of the original cast from the work’s 1973 world premiere. Treated as a feature film, rather than a filmed version of a performance, the results are impressive, even if there are moments when it feels like a low-budget pastiche of Visconti. Particularly compelling is Palmer’s use of unusual camera angles, which distort reality and emphasise the opera’s grotesque and disturbing undercurrents. He also manages to marry images that perfectly suit the mood of decaying beauty in Britten’s music (and Mann’s original tale). Robert Gard is both vocally and dramatically convincing as Aschenbach, replacing Pears who originally sang this role.

A documentary about the world premiere recording of The Burning Fiery Furnace at Orford Church near Aldeburgh completes the set, offering an intriguing glimpse into recording practices of the late 1960s, as well as documenting more disgruntled dissent from local residents.

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Opera Now, 2012 - ©Rhinegold Publishing