IN recognition perhaps of a neglectful attitude in the past to one of our nation’s greatest composers, the authorities at Covent Garden scheduled a new production of Benjamin Britten’s last opera Death in Venice hard on the heels of his earlier success Billy Budd.

And what a triumph it is proving. With four- and five-star reviews all round for director David McVicar and his team, the ROH bosses must be ruing their decision to limit the run to five performances.

With some foresight, we booked a box on the opening night. This was my first engagement with a major work not seen here for 25 years.

My principal impression (besides the wonder of the music under conductor Richard Farnes, with the great Mark Padmore in the main role) was how much truer the opera is to Thomas Mann’s source novella than Luchino Visconti’s lushly Romantic – Mahler-laden – film.

The loss of dignity suffered by the central character, the blocked writer von Aschenbach, arises from his shameful lust for a pretty boy he stalks on the Venice Lido. The ambiguity between Platonic ideas of love and primitive Dionysian passion is brilliantly explored in Britten’s numinous music and Myfanwy Piper’s eloquent libretto.

The classical Greek element is nowhere better illustrated than in the Games of Apollo – discus, javelin and the rest – played on the sands, with the god (Tim Mead) supervising the victorious Tadzio. Librettist Piper came close to persuading Britten that these should be shown in authentic style, with the participants naked. Happily perhaps for the work’s (and his) reputation, the composer demurred.

There is, even so, something unsettling in the homo-eroticism when you consider that Mann’s real-life Tadzio was a Polish lad of 10 and his fictional counterpart only 14. Wisely, stage Tadzios are always much older, with the current one – the Royal Ballet’s magnificent young star Leo Dixon – all of 23.