The Operas of Benjamin Britten: Expression and Evasion

By Claire Seymour | Go to book overview

14

Death in Venice

'You see, Aschenbach has always only lived like this' — and the speaker closed the fingers of his left hand tightly into a fist — 'and never like this' — and he let his open hand hang comfortably down along the back of the chair.

Thomas Mann, Death in Venice1

Ben is writing an evil opera, and it's killing him!

Peter Pears 2

Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice is a tapestry of unnamed secrets: sickness, sexuality, deviancy and danger are closeted within its pages, concealed by silence, self-delusion and self-denial yet simultaneously disclosed through Mann's symbolic patterns and ironic narrative method. The tale tells of the moral and physical decline of the aging writer, Gustave von Aschenbach. Dignified, successful and highly respected, he has devoted his life to the service of his art but now finds the disciplines and ideals by which he has lived undermined by a vision of Beauty in the form of a young Polish boy, Tadzio, whom he encounters during a visit to Venice. Although he is initially determined to sublimate his desire in his art, Aschenbach eventually concedes victory to his passionate impulses over his aesthetic discipline. This psychological self-honesty triggers a physical and moral collapse: Aschenbach abandons all pretence at dignity and shadows Tadzio and his family through the streets of Venice. He succumbs to the cholera plague which pollutes the Venetian waters and dies an ambivalent death on the shore of the Lido beach, as Tadzio beckons to him from the sea.

During the filming of Owen Wingrave in September 1970, Britten invited Myfanwy Piper and John Culshaw to work with him on his next opera, which he intended to base on Mann's text. She described her response: 'My first thought when I heard its subject was that it was impossible; the second that if Britten said so, it could be done.' 3 Certainly there were practical difficulties: for example, the novella might be considered to be particularly 'non-operatic', with a non- dramatic plot constructed from lengthy monologues and dense prose. Yet, why should Pears say that the opera was 'evil'? Perhaps it was the uncanny

____________________
1
Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, trans. David Luke (London: Secker and Warburg, 1990), p. 203. All further references are to this edition and are given in parentheses in the text.
2
Peter Pears to Sidney Nolan, in HC, p. 546.
3
Myfanwy Piper, 'The Libretto', in Donald Mitchell (ed.), Death in Venice — Cambridge Opera Handbook (Cambridge: CUP, 1987), p. 45.

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The Operas of Benjamin Britten: Expression and Evasion
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • The Operas of Benjamin Britten - Expression and Evasion *
  • Contents *
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Permissions *
  • Abbreviations x
  • 1 - Introduction *
  • 2 - Paul Bunyan *
  • 3 - Peter Grimes *
  • 4 - The Rape of Lucretia *
  • 5 - Albert Herring *
  • 6 - The Little Sweep *
  • 7 - Billy Budd *
  • 7 - Billy Budd *
  • 8 - Gloriana *
  • 9 - The Turn of the Screw *
  • 10 - Noye's Fludde *
  • 11 - A Midsummer Night's Dream *
  • 12 - The Church Parables *
  • 13 - Owen Wingrave *
  • 14 - Death in Venice *
  • 15 - Conclusion *
  • Bibliography *
  • Index *
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