Opera in two acts
Libretto by Myfanwy Piper
after the novella by Thomas Mann
sung in English with German subtitles
A man in the midst of a personal crisis in his life: Gustav von Aschenbach is very successful professionally, but a vague sense of yearning drives him to search for something new and mysterious – he therefore decides to travel to Venice. In 1973 and based on a libretto by Myfanwy Piper, Benjamin Britten set to music author Thomas Mann‘s famous novella. Piper’s work has masterfully translated the storyline into theatrical images, and with his opera, the British composer surprised with a many-colored and exotic sounding work.
Act I The successful author Gustav von Aschenbach is worn out. A working method based on discipline and self-control has brought him to a dead end. Encouraged by the sight of a foreign traveler, he decides to take a trip to Venice. Instead of spending the summer working in the mountains as usual, he will recuperate in the southern sun. On the voyage to Venice, he is shocked by the crass behavior of an elderly fop and other passengers. A gondolier takes Aschenbach – in defiance of his clearly stated wishes – to his destination, a seaside resort called the Lido. The ostentatiously deferential hotel manager shows him to his room and raves about the view. One of the hotel guests catches Aschenbach’s eye: a Polish youth named Tadzio. The writer is captivated by his beauty. On an excursion to the historic center, Aschenbach feels overwhelmed by the merchants’ importunities, and the scirocco makes him ill. He resolves to cut short his stay. His departure is thwarted when his luggage goes astray. He secretly rejoices that he will not have to give up the sight of Tadzio after all. Aschenbach spends his days observing Tadzio on the beach. He finds himself artistically inspired by the shapeliness of the boy’s body but is incapable of speaking to him. Daydreaming, he imagines the “Games of Apollo,” from which Tadzio emerges victorious in every discipline. At last the writer admits to himself that he loves the boy.
Act 2 Aschenbach grapples with the knowledge of his love. He devotes more and more energy to his outward appearance and his desire to look younger. Rumors reach Aschenbach, from various sources, of a dangerous epidemic spreading through Venice. He begins to follow Tadzio and his family on their outings in the city. He is repelled by the appearance of three vulgar performers. The only connection he feels is to Tadzio, who does not seem to be enjoying himself either. The rumors prove to be true: Venice is in the grip of cholera. Aschenbach is unable to warn Tadzio’s mother. He imagines that he and Tadzio are the catastrophe’s only survivors. In a dream, Aschenbach looks on as Apollo, the god of form and measure, succumbs to Dionysus, the god of ecstasy. The hotel staff prepares for the departure of the remaining guests. On the deserted beach, Aschenbach watches one last time as Tadzio plays with the other boys. Tadzio is wrestled to the ground and humiliated. Aschenbach wants to rush to his aid but lacks the strength. He dies of the plague as Tadzio, walking alone toward the sea, turns and waves to him.