Death in Venice

Benjamin Britten

Death in Venice

Op. 88

About this work

Thomas Mann's great novel about a writer suffering a creative and personal crisis was very much in the air around 1970. Luigi Visconti made his brilliant film (in which the leading character was transformed into a very Mahler-like composer) about them. Britten created this opera to be a starring vehicle for his life-long companion, the tenor Peter Pears, who portrayed von Aschenbach. Librettist Myfanwy Piper did her usual admirable job of condensing a difficult literary source into a crisp, concise succession of short but effective scenes. The very serious and moral novelist, Aschenbach, goes to Venice to overcome writer's block despite rumors of an epidemic. He feels he had found inspiration in the beauty and grace of a Polish teenager, Tadzio (portrayed in the opera by a dancer/gymnast), but soon is devastated to have to admit that he has fallen in love with the youth. He never approaches the boy improperly, but begins changing his appearance (new clothing, dying his hair, etc.) and taking other steps to appear in a light he thinks will impress Tadzio who remains aloof. Britten presents this in a manner suggesting moral decay. Eventually Aschenbach contracts the illness and dies, aloof and alone.

This is a striking work. Since Aschenbach recognizes and confronts his hitherto latent homosexuality in terms of anguish and eventual decay, the music begs to be understood as Britten's own most direct statement concerning that issue in his life. The music is deeply felt and highly effective, a hauntingly moving work. The music associated with Tadzio and his friends is a radiant treatment of the Balinese gamelan effects that Britten sometimes employs in his scores. Its requirement for an aging but very vocally agile high tenor, its unusual staging demands, and its economical, slender orchestral sound, as well as the sense of tragedy hanging over the whole work, make it something of a connoisseur's opera rather than a crowd-pleaser, but it is doubtless one of the operatic masterworks of the last half of the twentieth century.