Opera Scotland

Death in Venice

Music
Benjamin Britten (born Lowestoft, 22 November 1913; died Aldeburgh, 4 December 1976)

Text
Myfanwy Piper.

Source
Story Der Tod in Venedig (1911) by Thomas Mann (1875-1955).

Premières
First performance: Snape (The Maltings), 16 June 1973.
First UK performance: As above.
First performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (King’s Theatre), 4 September 1973.
Scottish Opera première: Glasgow (Theatre Royal), 20 August 1983.

Background
This was Britten’s last opera, and he was very ill while he worked on it, and was unable to conduct any performances. Inevitably this coloured the public and critical reception of the piece to a great extent. Further comparisons were made with the great film on the same subject directed by Luchino Visconti a couple of years earlier. In the film, Dirk Bogarde was made up to look like Mahler, who died shortly before Mann wrote his story, and the soundtrack of the film is permeated with the music of Mahler. This was all a distraction when the opera appeared, but the passage of time has allowed it to be seen as a masterpiece in its own right, full of atmospheric orchestration depicting Venice and its lagoon. The lead role, composed for Peter Pears, is enormously demanding. There is an extensive cast list of small roles representing the people of Venice as well as tourists. However very effective use is made of doubling, so that the lead baritone plays a long list of varied characters who seem to conspire to steer Aschenbach to his death.

Main Characters
Gustav von Aschenbach, a famous writer (tenor)
Traveller; Elderly Fop; Old Gondolier; Hotel Manager; Hotel Barber; Lead Player; Dionysus (baritone)
Voice of Apollo (counter-tenor)
Steward; Boatman; Waiter; Guide, Priest, English Clerk (baritone)
Hotel Porter (tenor)
Polish Mother (actor)
Tadzio, her son (dancer)

Plot Summary
The author Aschenbach arrives in Venice in the hope of refreshing his writing abilities. His visit is mistimed, and coincides with a serious outbreak of cholera. He only gradually realises what is happening, as the other tourists start to go home. When he tries to leave, his luggage goes missing and he returns to his hotel. During his stay he finds himself attracted to Tadzio, a Polish youth whose family are visiting the Lido. He watches Tadzio playing on the beach with other boys, imagining parallels with classical Greece. He discusses the cholera situation with his barber, and then is advised to depart by the English clerk. He returns to the Lido and finds the Poles about to leave. He again sits at the beach, and while watching Tadzio again he collapses and dies.

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