Great moments in opera: Death in Venice

February 25, 2014

Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice, which premiered in 1973, was his last opera. It shares with most of his late music an understated and austere manner, and it deals with difficult subject matter.

Those difficulties are manifold. The opera, like Thomas Mann’s novella on which it is based, is concerned with the power of beauty over the life and work of an artist, or, more generally, with the power of eros in human life, where eros is to be understood in its widest connotation: as a longing directed toward the good, true, and beautiful. In his great book on love, Josef Pieper reminds us that in our tradition of moral and aesthetic reflection eros has been revered for its power to shake us out of complacency, to bring us face to face with the mystery and beauty of life, to call us out of ourselves. The touchstone philosophical text is Plato’s Phaedrus.

This is very much the theme of Britten’s opera, in which a renowned composer Gustav von Aschenbach (I almost wrote ‘Adrian von Leverkuhn’!) travels to Venice for refreshment and inspiration and finds himself shaken by an unexpected and overwhelming encounter with beauty. It is for him an occasion of profound spiritual awakening, calling into question his artistic vocation and his self-understanding.

And therein lies a further difficulty, for the beauty that so unnerves Aschenbach is the beauty of a young adolescent boy. Britten handles this delicate subject with kid gloves, so to speak, having Aschenbach refer to his “father’s pleasure” in the contemplation of young Tadzio, but subsequent developments suggest that this paternal stance was as much a result of Aschenbach’s failing resistance to his own feelings as anything else. It seems fairly clear that the love which springs up in Aschenbach’s heart is the fruit of eros in the wide sense, yes (and Aschenbach himself explicitly tries to interpret his own experience through the lens of the Phaedrus), but also eros in the narrower, sensual sense, and that gives the story an unsettling feeling. For these reasons, Death in Venice is a work that has about it a slightly sickening air — not wholly inappropriately, given the way the story unfolds.

And this is an important point: the story, though it flirts with pederasty, can hardly be seen as a celebration of it. The power of beauty to arouse passion is undeniable, and Aschenbach, who has lived a life of great discipline, is inspired by the luxurious backdrop of Venice, presided over by “the wanton sun”, to surrender himself to the beauty that he sees shining through Tadzio. He falls into a kind of frenzy, a loss of self-composure, in the presence of his beloved, and becomes a man of folly, even in his own eyes. It is a tailspin from which he is ultimately unable to free himself. So the opera, like the novella, presents itself as a forum for a great contest between eros and civilization, giving eloquent voice to the power of beauty over the human soul, but, in the end, sounding a warning about the dangers of surrender to it.

There are very few excerpts from this opera on YouTube; it is safe to say that never will a section of this opera appear on one of those “Greatest Hits of Opera” collections. Nonetheless, let’s hear a little of it.

We can begin at the beginning: the opera opens with a long monologue in which Aschenbach relates the personal and artistic cul-de-sac in which he finds himself, exhausted and without inspiration. Here is the opening portion of the monologue, sung by Hans Schöpflin in Barcelona in 2008:

Following this scene he has a series of mysterious encounters with a figure who reappears throughout the story in many guises (all sung by the same person). Under his influence, Aschenbach decides to journey to Venice for rest and renewal. Here is the scene in which he arrives in Venice, preceded by the “Venice overture”. The gondolier is the same mysterious figure he saw before.

From there the opera winds its slow way downstream. Aschenbach encounters Tadzio, is overcome with feeling, and has long discussions with himself about the experience (and it must be said that Death in Venice is an unusually wordy opera). In the second half, he learns that cholera has come to Venice, causing many foreigners to flee. Aschenbach decides to go, but changes his mind when he remembers that it would mean leaving Tadzio. Eventually, of course, he himself falls ill. Hence the title.

Here is an excerpt taken from near the end of the opera, in which Aschenbach, his strength now failing, reflects once again on the troubling connections between beauty, passion, and “the wisdom poets crave”. Britten has supplied a haunting musical line, hinging upon a repeated figure with each occurrence of the name ‘Phaedrus’. Here again is Hans Schöpflin. The text, which is a little difficult to understand, I have attached below the clip:

Socrates knew, Socrates told us. Does beauty lead to wisdom, Phaedrus? Yes, but through the senses. Can poets take this way then? For senses lead to passion, Phaedrus, passion leads to knowledge, knowledge to forgiveness, to compassion with the abyss. Should we then reject it, Phaedrus, the wisdom poets crave, seeking only form and pure detachment, simplicity and discipline? But this is beauty, Phaedrus, Discovered through the senses, and senses lead to passion, Phaedrus, and passion to the abyss. And now Phaedrus, I will go. But you stay here, and when your eyes no longer see me, then you go too.

I cannot find any other excerpts of sufficiently good quality to post here, so this will have to do. I suppose that, on balance, I have been slightly disappointed by this opera. The theme, of the power of beauty, is one that actually means a great deal to me, and I count myself an admirer of Mann’s original story, but its operatic realization is a little too thorny, and perhaps too slow, to have won my affection.

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