“Death in Venice” (Britten)

Composer: Benjamin Britten
Libretto: Myfanwy Piper
Based on the novel by Thomas Mann
Premier: June 16 1973 at the Aldeburgh Festival


ACT I
SCENE 1: Munich
The famous writer Gustav von Aschenbach finds his inspiration failing in his 50s. Walking past a cemetery he meets a mysterious traveller who puts into his mind the idea of travel to exotic foreign parts. He yields to the impulse to go south in the hope of spiritual refreshment.

SCENE 2: On the boat to Venice
A rouged elderly fop pesters Aschenbach with his conversation and insinuations that Aschenbach is in search of a “little darling,” and Aschenbach finds that the approach to Venice does not give him the joy he was expecting.

SCENE 3: The journey to the Lido
In a gondola on the way to his hotel Aschenbach wakes from a reverie about “ambiguous Venice” to find he is being taken the wrong way. Despite his protests, the old gondolier refuses to change course, saying that “the signore will pay.”
At the quay the gondolier disappears without waiting to be paid, leaving Aschenbach to compare his strange voyage with the journey across the Styx with Charon the ferryman.

SCENE 4: The first evening at the hotel
The hotel manager welcomes Aschenbach effusively and shows him his room, with a view of the beach. Aschenbach reflects ironically on the contrast between his distinguished career and his present experiences, where everything is strange and “out of focus.”
Watching the cosmopolitan guests preparing for dinner, he is particularly struck by a young Polish boy, whose mysterious beauty is in marked contrast to his two plain sisters. Aschenbach reflects on the artist’s “treacherous proneness to side with beauty.”

SCENE 5: On the beach
The weather is oppressive. Aschenbach is unable to work and fears he may have to leave. He watches children at play and buys some strawberries from an itinerant vendor and begins to find peace in the scene, seeing in the sea a form of the perfection he has always striven for.
The beautiful Polish boy joins the children, and assumes the position of leader. Aschenbach hears his name – Tadzio – and feels a father’s pleasure in the boy’s beauty which it seems he might almost have created himself. He reflects that his life has become too detached and solitary.

SCENE 6: The foiled departure
Aschenbach crosses to the city in a gondola and strolls through the streets, where he is pestered by would-be guides, beggars and street vendors. Oppressed by the weather and the crowd he feels the need for fresh mountain air, and rushes back to the hotel to announce his departure, to the fulsome regret of the manager.
Although finding the air fresher and regretting the shortness of his acquaintance with Tadzio, he sets off by gondola, but finds that his luggage has been put on the wrong train. He decides to return, glad that his hand has been forced and feeling invigorated, for once, by the disruption to his normally orderly way of life.
Seeing Tadzio again, he realises that the boy is the reason for his reluctance to leave.

SCENE 7: The games of Apollo
Aschenbach sits in a chair on the beach watching Tadzio and the other children playing. They work their way through the five sports of the Greek pentathlon, with a commentary by the chorus and the voice of Apollo, so that the games are transformed into a ritual.
Tadzio wins everything and the voice of Apollo proclaims that “beauty is the mirror of spirit.”
Aschenbach feels his inspiration renewed by Tadzio – he will be set free by beauty. He wishes to congratulate Tadzio, but even though the boy smiles as he passes, Aschenbach is strangely tongue-tied, only able to stammer “I love you” after Tadzio has gone.

ACT II
Aschenbach broods on the fact that he could find only those hackneyed words to express his emotion.

SCENE 8: The barber’s shop (1)
The hotel barber mentions “the sickness,” but changes the subject when Aschenbach asks him to explain.

SCENE 9: The pursuit
Crossing to the city Aschenbach finds notices giving warnings about infection. No one will answer his questions, but he buys a German newspaper and learns that cholera is suspected in the city.
Seeing the Polish family, he resolves that they must learn nothing that may make them leave. He follows them into St Mark’s and is sure that Tadzio is aware of him. He follows their gondola back to the hotel – first reproaching himself for his weakness, then bowing to the power of Eros.

SCENE 10: The strolling players
Three singers perform for the hotel guests. When the leader takes his hat around Aschenbach questions him about the plague, but is answered evasively.
The players sing a mocking song and Aschenbach is pleased because Tadzio does not join in the general laughter, but remains aloof like him.

SCENE 11: The travel bureau
An English clerk is trying to deal with a crowd of people wanting to make arrangements to leave Venice. He tells Aschenbach the truth about the cholera, describing its progress westwards from the delta of the River Ganges.
Warning of the chaos to come, he advises Aschenbach to leave while he can.

SCENE 12: The lady of the pearls
Aschenbach tries to bring himself to warn Tadzio’s mother, but finds himself tongue-tied. He realises that he is beginning to welcome the general disintegration and toying with the idea that only he and Tadzio might be left alive.

SCENE 13: The dream
Aschenbach dreams a debate between Dionysus (indulgence and unreason) and Apollo (restraint and reason). The victory of Dionysus reflects his demoralisation and he is resigned to let the gods do their will with him.

SCENE 14: The empty beach
Aschenbach repeats his surrender: “Do what you will with me.”

SCENE 15: The hotel barber’s shop (2)
Aschenbach allows the barber to dye his hair and paint his face.

SCENE 16: The last visit to Venice
Aschenbach follows the Polish family around the city. Seeing Tadzio waiting for him, he turns away. He loses the family. He buys strawberries, but this time they are over-ripe.
Tired and ill, he rests, meditating on the words of Socrates to Phaedrus: “Beauty leads to wisdom but through the senses … and senses lead to passion and passion to the abyss.”

SCENE 17: The departure
The hotel manager prepares to farewell guests and Aschenbach learns that the Polish family is to leave after lunch.
He goes out to the beach where Tadzio is playing with other boys. For the first time Tadzio is dominated and his friend Jaschiu grinds his face into the sand.
As the others run off, Tadzio walks far out to sea, seeming to beckon to Aschenbach, who slumps in his chair – dead.

Source: opera guide