Death in Venice
is an opera
Opera is an art form in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work combining text and musical score, usually in a theatrical setting. Opera incorporates many of the elements of spoken theatre, such as acting, scenery, and costumes and sometimes includes dance...
in two acts by Benjamin Britten
Edward Benjamin Britten, Baron Britten, OM CH was an English composer, conductor, and pianist. He showed talent from an early age, and first came to public attention with the a cappella choral work A Boy Was Born in 1934. With the premiere of his opera Peter Grimes in 1945, he leapt to...
, his last. The opera is based on the novella
A novella is a written, fictional, prose narrative usually longer than a novelette but shorter than a novel. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Nebula Awards for science fiction define the novella as having a word count between 17,500 and 40,000...
Death in Venice
The novella Death in Venice was written by the German author Thomas Mann, and was first published in 1913 as Der Tod in Venedig. The plot of the work presents a great writer suffering writer's block who visits Venice and is liberated and uplifted, then increasingly obsessed, by the sight of a...
by Thomas Mann
Thomas Mann was a German novelist, short story writer, social critic, philanthropist, essayist, and 1929 Nobel Prize laureate, known for his series of highly symbolic and ironic epic novels and novellas, noted for their insight into the psychology of the artist and the intellectual...
. Myfanwy Piper
Mary Myfanwy Piper was a British art critic and opera librettist.Myfanwy Evans was born into a Welsh family in London. She attended North London Collegiate School and read English Language and Literature at St Hugh's College, Oxford. She married the artist John Piper, with whom she lived in rural...
wrote the English libretto. It was first performed at Snape Maltings
Snape Maltings is part of Snape, Suffolk, U.K., best known for its concert hall, which is one of the main sites of the annual Aldeburgh Festival....
Aldeburgh is a coastal town in Suffolk, East Anglia, England. Located on the River Alde, the town is notable for its Blue Flag shingle beach and fisherman huts where freshly caught fish are sold daily, and the Aldeburgh Yacht Club...
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...
on 16 June 1973.
The astringent score is marked by some haunting soundscapes of 'ambiguous Venice'. The boy Tadzio is portrayed by a silent dancer, to gamelan
A gamelan is a musical ensemble from Indonesia, typically from the islands of Bali or Java, featuring a variety of instruments such as metallophones, xylophones, drums and gongs; bamboo flutes, bowed and plucked strings. Vocalists may also be included....
-like percussion accompaniment. The music of the opera is precise, direct and movingly understated.
Britten had been contemplating the novella for many years and began work in September 1970 with approaches to Piper and to Golo Mann, son of the author. Because of agreements between Warner Brothers and the estate of Thomas Mann for the production of Luchino Visconti
Luchino Visconti di Modrone, Count of Lonate Pozzolo was an Italian theatre, opera and cinema director, as well as a screenwriter. He is best known for his films The Leopard and Death in Venice .-Life:...
's 1971 film
Death in Venice is a 1971 film directed by Luchino Visconti and starring Dirk Bogarde and Björn Andrésen. The film is based on the novella Death in Venice by Thomas Mann.-Plot:...
, Britten was advised not to see the movie when it was released. According to Colin Graham, director of the first production of the opera, some colleagues of the composer who did see the film found the relationship between Tadzio and Aschenbach "too sentimental and salacious". This contributed to the decision that Tadzio and his family and friends would be portrayed by non-speaking dancers. Ian Bostridge
Ian Bostridge CBE is an English tenor, well known for his performances as an opera singer and as a song recitalist.-Early life and education:...
has noted themes in the work of "formalism in art and the perilous dignity of the acclaimed artist".
||Premiere Cast, 16 June 1973
(Conductor: Steuart Bedford
Steuart John Rudolf Bedford is a British orchestral and opera conductor. He is the brother of composer David Bedford and a grandson of Liza Lehmann....
|Gustav von Aschenbach, a novelist
The tenor is a type of male singing voice and is the highest male voice within the modal register. The typical tenor voice lies between C3, the C one octave below middle C, to the A above middle C in choral music, and up to high C in solo work. The low extreme for tenors is roughly B2...
Sir Peter Neville Luard Pears CBE was an English tenor who was knighted in 1978. His career was closely associated with the composer Edward Benjamin Britten....
| Traveller/ Elderly fop/ Old gondolier/ Hotel manager/
Hotel barber/ Leader of the players/ Voice of Dionysus
Baritone is a type of male singing voice that lies between the bass and tenor voices. It is the most common male voice. Originally from the Greek , meaning deep sounding, music for this voice is typically written in the range from the second F below middle C to the F above middle C Baritone (or...
John Shirley-Quirk CBE is an English bass-baritone.He was born in Liverpool, England, and sang in his high school choir. He played the violin and was awarded a scholarship. While studying chemistry and physics at Liverpool University, he studied voice with Austen Carnegie...
| The Polish mother
Deanne Bergsma is a retired South African ballerina. She was born in Pretoria and became a member of the Royal Ballet in 1958. She became a principal of the company in 1967. She created the role of Lady Mary Lygon in Ashton's Enigma Variations and a principal part in Tetley's Field Figures...
| Tadzio, her son
| Her two daughters
||Elisabeth Griffiths and Melanie Phillips
| Jaschiu, Tadzio's friend
| Voice of Apollo
A countertenor is a male singing voice whose vocal range is equivalent to that of a contralto, mezzo-soprano, or a soprano, usually through use of falsetto, or far more rarely than normal, modal voice. A pre-pubescent male who has this ability is called a treble...
| Hotel porter
| Hotel waiter
| Russian mother
A soprano is a voice type with a vocal range from approximately middle C to "high A" in choral music, or to "soprano C" or higher in operatic music. In four-part chorale style harmony, the soprano takes the highest part, which usually encompasses the melody...
| German mother
A mezzo-soprano is a type of classical female singing voice whose range lies between the soprano and the contralto singing voices, usually extending from the A below middle C to the A two octaves above...
|Angela Vernon Bates
| Strawberry seller
||Robert Carpenter Turner
| Lace seller
| Newspaper seller
||Stephen James Adams
| Strolling player
|Chorus - travellers, workers and dancers
Scene 1: Munich
Aschenbach, a famous German novelist, is weary and opens the opera bemoaning the fading of his artistic inspiration. As he walks through the suburbs of Munich, he stops before the entrance to a cemetery. He catches sight of a traveller (‘from beyond the Alps by his looks’
) and, musing on the strange and exotic nature of foreign lands, is impulsively moved to travel south in the hope of refreshing his artistic imagination.
Scene 2: On the Boat to Venice
He takes a boat to Venice, sharing his passage with a group of libidinous youths and their leader, the Elderly Fop. Aschenbach's discovery that the fop is not young, but old and made-up (‘How can they bear that counterfeit; that young-old horror. A wretched lot, a wretched boat’
) repulses him, and he arrives in Venice dispirited.
Scene 3: The Journey to the Lido
Aschenbach contemplates his arrival by gondola into the city (‘What lies in wait for me here, Ambiguous Venice, Where water is married to stone, And passion confuses the senses?’
). He intends to go to the Schiavone, but is taken towards the Lido by the Old Gondolier, who mutters that ‘Nobody shall bid me; I go where I choose; I go my own way’
. A brief argument as to their destination ensues, but the novelist soon capitulates and is taken to the Lido.
Scene 4: The First Evening at the Hotel
Aschenbach is greeted by the Hotel Manager, who shows him his room with ingratiating volubility. As the other guests assemble for dinner, Aschenbach watches them pass. His eye is taken by a young Polish boy, Tadzio, in whom he sees unnatural beauty (‘Surely the soul of Greece; Lies in that bright perfection; ...Mortal child with more than mortal grace’
). Aschenbach is aware of the fatuousness of his thoughts, but allows himself to indulge in his speculations.
Scene 5: On the Beach
Reading on the beach, Aschenbach observes Tadzio playing on the sands. He obtains a wry satisfaction from the discovery that Tadzio has flaws: as a Pole, the boy hates the Russian guests (‘He is human after all. There is a dark side even to perfection. I like that.’
Scene 6: The Foiled Departure
Walking the streets of Venice, Aschenbach is accosted at every turn by beggars, street sellers and others demanding his custom. Seeing rubbish on the streets and smelling the foul water of the canals, he feels nauseated and claustrophobic, and decides that he must leave Venice. Back at the hotel, the Manager expresses his regret over Aschenbach's departure. When Tadzio returns Aschenbach's glances, Aschenbach himself also feels regret. On arriving at the station, Aschenbach finds that his luggage has been sent on the wrong train (‘I am furious because I am forced to return, but secretly I rejoice. Vacillating, irresolute, absurd’
), and he realises upon seeing Tadzio again that the boy was the cause of his regret at leaving.
Scene 7: The Games of Apollo
Aschenbach sits in his chair on the Lido beach, watching Tadzio and his friends play. Aschenbach's thoughts (voiced by the chorus) are of the gods Phaedra
In Greek mythology, Phaedra is the daughter of Minos and Pasiphaë, wife of Theseus and the mother of Demophon of Athens and Acamas. Phaedra's name derives from the Greek word φαιδρός , which meant "bright"....
, Apollo and Hyacinthus
Hyacinth or Hyacinthus is a divine hero from Greek mythology. His cult at Amyclae, southwest of Sparta, where his tumulus was located— in classical times at the feet of Apollo's statue in the sanctuary that had been built round the burial mound— dates from the Mycenaean era...
, their actions mirroring those of Tadzio. The boys compete in a variety of sports: running, long jump, discus, javelin and wrestling. Tadzio wins conclusively, and Aschenbach is inspired artistically by the boy's beauty, as ‘...thought becomes feeling, feeling thought’
. Aschenbach determines to congratulate Tadzio on his victory, but when the opportunity arises, he cannot bring himself to speak. Almost choking on the words, Aschenbach realises the truth ‘I - love you.’
Sitting with a book but distracted by his own thoughts, Aschenbach decides to accept his feeling for the boy as it is, (‘ridiculous, but sacred too and no, not dishonourable, even in these circumstances.’
Scene 8: The Hotel Barber's Shop (i)
Aschenbach visits the Hotel Barber, who lets slip a mention of a sickness in Venice. Aschenbach questions urgently, but the barber denies that the sickness is of any importance.
Scene 9: The Pursuit
As Aschenbach crosses the waters to Venice, he detects the smell of disinfectant. On his arrival, he finds citizens reading public notices warning them to take precautions against infection. The citizens too deny that there is any cause for worry, but Aschenbach finds a graver warning in a German newspaper: ‘We doubt the good faith of the Venetian city fathers in their refusal to admit to the cases of cholera in the city. German citizens should return as soon as possible’
. The Polish family appears and Aschenbach determines that they must not find out about the cholera outbreak for fear that they will leave. Aschenbach follows the family to a café, where the mother notices him and moves herself in between Aschenbach and her son. The family moves onward to St Mark's, with Aschenbach still following at a distance. In due course, the family leaves and takes a gondola back to the hotel, with Aschenbach in pursuit and in a state of some excitement (‘Tadzio, Eros, charmer, see I am past all fear, blind to danger, drunken, powerless, sunk in the bliss of madness’
Scene 10: The Strolling Players
On the hotel terrace after dinner, the guests assemble to watch the players. Aschenbach questions the Leader of the Players about the rumours of plague, but the actor dismisses his suggestions. Aschenbach notices that Tadzio, like himself, is not laughing at the skit, and wonders ‘Does your innocence keep you aloof, or do you look to me for guidance? Do you look to me?’
Scene 11: The Travel Bureau
A young English clerk is dealing with a crowd of hotel guests, all urgently trying to leave Venice. As the clerk closes the bureau, Aschenbach asks him about the plague and is told that the city is in the grip of Asiatic cholera. He advises Aschenbach to leave immediately before a blockade is imposed.
Scene 12: The Lady of the Pearls
Aschenbach decides to warn Tadzio's mother of the danger posed to them by the plague, but cannot bring himself to do it. He initially chastises himself for having failed to ‘make everything decent and above board’
, but then decides that he was right not to speak out, and idly wonders ‘What if all were dead, and only we two left alive?’
Scene 13: The Dream
Aschenbach dreams of the gods Apollo and Dionysus, who argue their respective viewpoints of reason and beauty verses chaos and ecstasy. Apollo is overwhelmed and leaves Dionysus to a wild dance. Aschenbach wakes and realises how little of his former intellectual rigour and detachment remains. He is resigned to the change: ‘Let the gods do what they will with me’
(The music for Apollo in this scene derives from the First Delphic Hymn
The Delphic Hymns are two musical compositions from Ancient Greece, which survive in substantial fragments. They were long regarded as being dated circa 138 BCE and 128 BCE, respectively, but recent scholarship has shown it likely they were both written for performance at the Athenian...
, an early Greek melody Britten heard Arda Mandikian sing at the 1954 Aldeburgh Festival
The Aldeburgh Festival is an English arts festival devoted mainly to classical music. It takes place each June in the Aldeburgh area of Suffolk, centred on the main concert hall at Snape Maltings...
Scene 14: The Empty Beach
Aschenbach watches as Tadzio and his friends play a desultory game on the beach; they soon leave.
Scene 15: The Hotel Barber's Shop (ii)
Aschenbach declares ‘Do what you will with me!’
, and the barber works at beautifying him with make-up and hair dye, extolling the virtues of youthful appearance the while.
Scene 16: The Last Visit to Venice
Aschenbach boards a gondola for Venice and sings of its beauty. He realises and mocks his own resemblance to the Elderly Fop. Upon seeing the Polish family ahead of him, Aschenbach follows distractedly. Tadzio detaches himself from the family and waits for Aschenbach, who turns away when the boy looks directly at him. Aschenbach is pleased to notice that Tadzio does not betray his follower's presence to his mother. Alone again, Aschenbach buys strawberries from a street seller, but finds them musty and over-ripe. He sits down, tired and ill, and bitterly mocks himself (‘Self-discipline your strength... All folly, all pretence’
). He recites a paraphrase of Plato's dialogue between the old philosopher Socrates and the boy Phaedrus, speaking the parts of both man and boy. The subject of the dialogue is the paradoxical, dangerous relationship between the artist and his subject.
Scene 17: The Departure
The Hotel Manager and a porter are organising the departure of the last guests, the Polish family among them. Aschenbach inquires as to their time of departure, then leaves to sit on the deserted beach where Tadzio and another boy, Jaschiu, are playing. The game becomes rougher and Jaschiu dominates, pushing Tadzio's face into the sand. In an attempt to assist, Aschenbach tries to get up but is too weak. Jaschiu and the other children run away, leaving Tadzio on the beach alone with Aschenbach. Tadzio beckons the author, but he slumps in his chair. Tadzio continues walking far out to sea.
Source: Recordings of Death in Venice on operadis-opera-discography.org.uk
“Cat:” refers to recording company’s catalogue number.