|About this Recording
2.110577 - BRITTEN, B.: Death in Venice [Opera] (Teatro Real, 2014) (NTSC)
Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
Opera in two acts, Op. 88 (1973)
Gustav von Aschenbach – John Daszak
Teatro Real Chorus and Orchestra Chorus Master Andrés Máspero
Stage Director – Willy Decker
Filmed on 17 and 19 December 2014 at the Teatro Real, Madrid, Spain
A co-production by the Teatro Real and François Roussillon et Associés with the participation of France Télévisions and NHK with the support of the Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée.
Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) considered turning Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella Death in Venice into an opera for some time before the first notes were written. A decisive step was taken in September 1970 when he requested a libretto from Myfanwy Piper. She had already supplied the texts for two of the composer’s previous operas, which were both based on Henry James novellas: The Turn of the Screw (1954) and Owen Wingrave (1970).
Britten became aware that at the time he began work on his musico-theatrical treatment of Death in Venice, the director Luchino Visconti was in the process of adapting Mann’s short story for the screen. Visconti’s film, which uses the music of Gustav Mahler, was released in 1971 and garnered widespread publicity. Britten was always careful to point out, however, that he had been planning to adapt the same story as an operatic project for five or six years before the release of a film he never saw.
During the next couple of years, at a time of deteriorating health, the composer took on a heavy workload, including several recording and performing commitments as well as creative projects. He managed to complete the score of Death in Venice before undergoing open-heart surgery in hospital in May 1973. The opera, which turned out to be Britten’s last contribution to the medium made its debut on 16 June 1973 at The Maltings Concert Hall, Snape as part of the 28th Aldeburgh Festival. On account of the composer’s delicate state of his health, there was no possibility of his attending the premiere, though he was able to listen to the live broadcast of the second performance six days later.
Britten was anxious that the narrative should adhere closely to the original source and secured the support of Golo Mann, son of the author, for his project. The outline of the story is starkly simple. Gustav von Aschenbach, a famous, middle-aged novelist who is having a creative block, travels to Venice to restore his failing powers. While he is staying there, he becomes infatuated with the beauty of a young Polish boy, Tadzio, who is also visiting with his family. Aschenbach’s increasing obsession coincides with a cholera epidemic in the city which the authorities attempt to conceal. As the Polish family are preparing to depart, Aschenbach sits on a beach, where, after witnessing the boy being humiliated in a rough game, he dies.
One of the reasons Britten was so determined to complete Death in Venice was his desire to write a substantial leading role for his long-term personal and professional partner, the tenor Peter Pears (1910–1986), to whom the opera is dedicated. Pears had taken supporting parts rather than the lead in all Britten’s major operatic works since Billy Budd (1951) but now he was presented with arguably his greatest role and one which tested fully his musical and interpretative powers. Aschenbach is a dominating presence throughout and his vocal contributions range from arias to declamatory recitatives. Mostly accompanied (or rather punctuated) by piano, these recitatives are conceived as interior monologues which allow the character to ruminate and soliloquise. Providing continuity between the opera’s many short scenes, they are written in the free notation Britten had developed in his church parables Curlew River (1964), The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966) and The Prodigal Son (1968). The one exception to this is the opening soliloquy when Aschenbach declares he has come to a creative halt—‘My mind beats on and no words come’: in this instance, the notation is measured and the accompaniment orchestral.
The other main part in the opera is the disquieting, mysterious Traveller encountered by Aschenbach in a Munich graveyard and who persuades the writer to go to Venice. This menacing figure turns out to be the master of Aschenbach’s fate and recurs in various other guises, all of whom contribute to Aschenbach’s downfall: the Elderly Fop, the Old Gondolier, the Hotel Manager, the Hotel Barber, the Leader of the Players and the Voice of Dionysus. This versatile role, a sort of malign variant on Alec Guinness’s celebrated turn as multiple family members in the dark 1949 Ealing comedy film Kind Hearts and Coronets, was created for the bass-baritone John Shirley-Quirk, a singer Britten greatly admired for his acting prowess as well as his voice.
Tadzio never speaks or sings, but the character and his family and friends all communicate through the medium of dance (choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton for the initial performances). This suggests their remoteness to the tonguetied Aschenbach and also creates some youthful energy and movement in the opera as a counterpoint to the ailing writer’s generally languid and introspective contributions. Chief among the shorter singing parts, the role of Apollo, who appears in Aschenbach’s dreams, was created for countertenor James Bowman. There is also a chorus, who portray gondoliers, beggars, street vendors and tourists, and from which certain minor solo parts are taken, such as the Strawberry Seller and the Hotel Waiter.
Britten’s score has a chamber-like precision and clarity with some of the richer orchestral passages reserved for evocations of Venice itself, which emerges as grand and imposing and at the same time shadowy and sinister. The forces required are modest and traditional (double woodwind and brass, tuba, timpani, harp, piano and a reduced string section) with the exception of the percussion department which demands five players. Their pitched and non-pitched instruments form a unique version of gamelan music that is a development of Britten’s earlier exploration of oriental material in his ballet The Prince of the Pagodas (1956). Here, the percussion is used to suggest the ‘other’ as represented by the exotic and inaccessible world of Tadzio and his family as seen through the eyes of Aschenbach. The most commonly used instrument to portray the young boy is the vibraphone and its enigmatic, equivocal quality seems entirely apt.
Conventional instruments are also used in a highly personal way. Serpentine woodwind and baleful tuba are the principal conduits of disease and infestation. In contrast, the strings are often bright and invigorating, depicting Aschenbach’s desire to travel to the South and conveying the illimitable vistas of the open sea and sky on his journey.
Structurally, Death in Venice is built on a series of intricate motivic interrelationships and thematic cross-references. Britten generates intensity and a growing sense of unease and obsession by constantly refashioning a number of carefully selected ideas. The tiny motif originally encountered in Act I, Scene 1, in the first line of the Traveller’s solo, ‘Marvels unfold’, as he seductively persuades Aschenbach to journey to the South, sows a seed that will gradually infest and undermine the whole score. The motif becomes associated with the plague, most often heard on the tuba and it can even be traced in the outline of the writer’s impassioned outburst of ‘I love you’ at the end of Act I. The Republic’s title ‘La Serenissima’ also haunts the opera as a leitmotif. It is first encountered in brazen form sung by youths who, with an Elderly Fop repugnant to Aschenbach, are the writer’s fellow-travellers on the voyage to Venice. It forms the substance of the picturesque Overture which is placed after the prologue and is then transfigured into a barcarolle accompanying Aschenbach’s frequent gondola journeys.
The opera concludes with an orchestral epilogue consisting of a poignant dialogue between Tadzio’s dispassionate tuned percussion theme and an eloquent melody on strings representing Aschenbach. This is the only time these two distinct musics have been heard together in the score, a long-delayed unison which comes too late for the main protagonist. While they remain separate and unmixed, they glimmer into silence together. These closing moments of the opera have undeniable dramatic power yet one of the most significant musical episodes takes place slightly earlier when the writer sings the Hymn to Beauty based on Socrates’s dialogue with Phaedrus: ‘But this is beauty, Phaedrus, discovered through the senses, and senses lead to passion, Phaedrus, and passion to the abyss.’ This, the last of many great lyrical ariosos which Britten wrote for Pears, is perhaps the expressive peak of this deft and elusive masterpiece.
Scene 1. Munich
Scene 2. On the Boat to Venice
Scene 3. The Journey to the Lido
Scene 4. The First Evening at the Hotel
Scene 5. On the Beach
Scene 6. The Foiled Departure
Scene 7. The Games of Apollo
Act II Aschenbach decides to accept his feelings for Tadzio.
Scene 8. The Hotel Barber Shop (I)
Scene 9. The Pursuit
Scene 10. The Travelling Players
Scene 11. The Travel Agency
Scene 12. The Lady of the Pearls
Scene 13. The Dream
Scene 14. The Empty Beach
Scene 15. The Hotel Barber Shop (II)
Scene 16. The Last Visit to Venice
Scene 17. The Departure
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