Death in Venice synopsis
Music by Benjamin Britten
Libretto by Myfanwy Piper after Thomas Mann
First performed: 1973
The action takes place in 1911.
Scene 1: Munich
The celebrated author Gustav von Aschenbach struggles with his incapacity to write. By the entrance to a cemetery he encounters a Traveller and is filled with a longing for the sun and the south.
Scene 2: On the boat to Venice
Aschenbach is shocked by the behaviour and appearance of an Elderly Fop and some rowdy youths.
Scene 3: The journey to the Lido
Aschenbach is rowed by an Old Gondolier who insists, despite Aschenbach's protests, on taking his passenger direct to the hotel on the Lido. On arrival at the hotel, the Old Gondolier disappears without waiting for payment.
Scene 4: The first evening at the hotel
Aschenbach is greeted by the Hotel Manager and shown to his room. Watching the hotel guests assemble for dinner, Aschenbach catches his first sight of a Polish boy and his family. He is struck by the boy's appearance and muses on the nature of beauty and its implications for the artist.
Scene 5: On the beach
Aschenbach is anxious that the sultry weather might force him to leave. He buys some strawberries and observes a group of children playing on the beach. His first impressions of the Polish boy – Tadzio – are confirmed.
Scene 6: The foiled departure
Aschenbach crosses the lagoon to visit the city. Fearing the effect of the sirocco on his health and troubled by beggars and street vendors, he resolves to end his stay. He departs for the railway station but a mix-up with his baggage, which has been misdirected, sees him return to the hotel.
Scene 7: The Games of Apollo
On the beach Aschenbach watches Tadzio and his friends competing in a sequence of games. Aschenbach's thoughts turn to Ancient Greece and, as the Voice of Apollo is heard and the children's games become myths and the beach Socratic Greece, the writer's muse is released. Tadzio is victorious in the games but Aschenbach is unable to congratulate him.
Scene 8: The Hotel Barber's shop
Aschenbach learns that there is a mysterious sickness in the city and that many guests are leaving.
Scene 9: The pursuit
Aschenbach becomes obsessed with the desire, on the one hand, to know the truth about the sickness, and on the other to keep knowledge of it from Tadzio and his family. He follows them into St Mark's, on a gondola ride and back to the hotel.
Scene 10: The Strolling Players
A group of strolling players entertains the hotel guests, including Aschenbach and Tadzio. Aschenbach asks the Leader of the Players directly if there is plague in Venice.
Scene 11: The travel bureau
Aschenbach finally learns the truth from an English clerk: that Venice is in the grip of cholera, and that for fear of commercial loss the city authorities have tried to conceal it. The clerk advises Aschenbach to leave without delay.
Scene 12: The Lady of the Pearls
Aschenbach decides to warn Tadzio's mother, but when he sees her he fails to speak. He recognizes that this last failure reveals the depths to which his obsession with Tadzio has brought him.
Scene 13: The dream
As he sleeps, Aschenbach dreams: the two sides of his personality – the Apolline (by which he has hitherto been ruled) and the Dionysiac – struggle for ascendancy. When Dionysus claims him, Aschenbach suddenly awakes and is resigned to his fate.
Scene 14: The empty beach
Watching from afar Tadzio and his friends playing on the beach, Aschenbach reiterates his decision to abandon himself to his passion.
Scene 15: The Hotel Barber's shop
Aschenbach makes a second visit to the Hotel Barber, whom he allows to make him look younger.
Scene 16: The last visit to Venice
Aschenbach continues his pursuit of Tadzio across the city. The boy sees him but does not betray him. Exhausted and confused, Aschenbach rests for a moment. He buys some strawberries, but they are musty and over-ripe. He recalls what he once learned about passion and beauty from reading Socrates.
Scene 17: The departure
All the guests are leaving the hotel, including the Polish family. Aschenbach goes to the beach to watch Tadzio for the last time.
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