Death in Venice

Plot & Video

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Thursday, 17th September 2009, 7 pm

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Plot & Images

Venice as a symbol of sensuality and ambiguity, beauty and decay – in his last and most personal stage work, the British composer Benjamin Britten took Thomas Mann’s famous and much discussed novella Death In Venice as his source material, which had already been made into a film by Visconti. The plot centres on the writer Gustav von Aschenbach and the story of the fate that befalls him as an artist: after years of self-control he is broken by the conflict between the struggle to achieve perfect beauty in his art and ardent, feverish passion.

The writer Gustav von Aschenbach, suffering from writer’s block, is seized by a desire for change. He travels to Venice. On his arrival he finds the sea and sky grey, the air clammy. But then his attention is taken by Tadzio, the son of a Polish family. His beauty and childlike grace fascinate the writer. He falls in love with the youth, thereby going beyond the limits of anything he could previously have imagined. Aschenbach believes he has found the perfect form in Tadzio and surrenders to his fascination and his feelings to such an extent that he passively submits to his impending death of cholera.

Benjamin Britten and his librettist Myfanwy Piper created a world in their opera that is largely composed of an introspective monologue by Aschenbach. Bound up by self-imposed shackles and social ostracism, Britten’s alter ego gives an account of inspiration through youth, of Apollo-like innocence and Dionysian desire and of a love that brings not only destruction but also liberation. For the 17 scenes evoking the ambivalent relationship between youth and old age as well as between love and death, Britten composed an extremely suggestive score and used a small, transparent orchestra, percussion and a piano. Death in Venice premiered in 1973 at the Aldeburgh Festival, three years before Britten’s death. The part of Gustav von Aschenbach was played by Peter Pears, his life-long partner.