Death in Venice is considered to be Benjamin Britten's great confessional piece. First written and performed in 1973, with the tenor role intended for his life partner, Peter Pears, the opera is closely based on Thomas Mann's 1921 novella Der Tod in Venedig. The plot follows the acclaimed and successful writer Gustav von Aschenbach on a trip to Venice, where he falls in love with the youth Tadzio, who he considers to embody the Hellenistic ideal of masculine beauty. Unable to leave his object of obsession, he dies in Venice when he chooses to remain in the city despite an increasingly unsettling series of events and an outbreak of the Asian cholera.
0929 Leo Dixon as Tadzio and Mark Padmore as Gustav von Aschenbach in Death in Venice (c) ROH 2019 photographed by Catherine Ashmore
This opera is much more than a love story - perhaps it would be wrong to call it that altogether. Von Aschenbach is a tragic figure much in the sense of a classical Greek drama; not only because of his hopelessly unrequited love, but because of his own internal corruption beyond his control as he gives in to his passions, where he was previously governed by morality and reason. The Royal Opera House's current production, under the direction of David McVicar, successfully portrays this in a way that does not undermine the dignity of von Aschenbach. The choreography supports this depiction from the Apollonian to the Dionysian, allowing for viewers to empathise with him and relate to the tragedy of his figure. Both the scenes of von Aschenbach’s daydream, in which he imagines Tadzio competing in the ancient Olympics, and that of his hedonistic nightmare, in which Tadzio emerges suddenly from the covers of the bed, are executed in a tasteful way.
The stage design is noteworthy in this respect, too - it is beautiful and minimalistic, consisting of moveable arches and columns in varying shades of grey that can be adapted to represent different locations from scene to scene. This stage design subtly underlines the plot of the opera; von Aschenbach’s rides in the black gondola are reminiscent of Charon carrying newly deceased souls across the Styx, amounting to strikingly powerful imagery of his imminent moral corruption and death.
2123 Mark Padmore as Aschenbach in Death in Venice (c) ROH 2019 photographed by Catherine Ashmore
It is remarkable how closely the opera follows the book on which it is based, and as such, having read Death in Venice (the English translation has the same title as the opera) before going to see the production is highly recommended, albeit not necessary. At any rate, it is a definite watch for those who wish to see an opera with an extraordinary cast and an emotionally and intellectually stimulating execution.