Op. 88 (1973)
Opera in two acts
Libretto by Myfanwy Piper after the novella by Thomas Mann
Setting: Munich, Venice, the Lido, 1911
Duration: 2 hours 25 minutes
First performance: 16 June 1973, Snape Maltings Concert Hall
Gustav von Aschenbach: Tenor
The Traveller/Elderly Fop/Old Gondolier/Hotel Manager/Hotel Barbar/Leader of the Players/Voice of Dionysus: Bass-baritone
The Voice of Apollo: Counter-tenor
Solo chorus parts:
Sopranos: Danish Lady, Russian mother, English lady, French girl, Strawberry seller, Lace seller, Newspaper seller, Strolling player
Contraltos: French mother, German mother, Russian nanny, Beggar woman
Tenors: Hotel porter, two Americans, two Gondoliers, Glass maker, Strolling player
Baritones and Basses: Ship’s steward, Lido boatman, Polish father, German father, Russian father, Hotel waiter, Guide in Venice, Restaurant waiter, Gondolier, Priest in St Mark’s ,English clerk in the travel bureau
Chorus: Youths and girls, hotel guests and waiters, gondoliers and boatmen, street vendors, touts and beggars, citizens of Venice, choir in St Mark’s, tourists, followers of Dionysus
Dancers: The Polish Mother, Tadzio (her son), her two daughters, their Governess, Jaschiu (Tadzio’s friend), other boys and girls, strolling players, beach attendants
What’s it About?
Act 1. Writer Gustav von Aschenbach is seen wandering the streets of Munich, seeking inspiration that seems to have deserted him. He becomes aware of a mysterious Traveller who conjures up visions of an exotic landscape, rousing in Aschenbach the urge to travel. On the boat to Venice, Aschenbach is disconcerted by the grotesque appearance of a rouged Elderly Fop. A gondolier rows Aschenbach towards the Lido, contrary to his intentions. On disembarking, the Gondolier mysteriously disappears leaving Aschenbach to reflect on the gondola as a symbol of death. On his arrival at the hotel, the Hotel Manager leads Aschenbach to his room and shows him the splendid view of the beach. As the Hotel Guests assemble for dinner, Achenbach becomes aware of a Polish family, particularly the beautiful young boy Tadzio. Aschenbach ponders on the artist’s predilection for beauty. Next day on the beach, Aschenbach is troubled by the heavy atmosphere and greying skies, but the games of Tadzio and his friends offer distraction. Unable to fight off the oppressive mood, he decides he must leave Venice but a misunderstanding over his luggage provides a pretext for returning to the hotel. In an idyllic interlude, we see Tadzio and his companions competing in games and other athletic events – Tadzio is the victor in all. Aschenbach intends to speak to the boy, but at the crucial moment turns away. He realises the truth of his feelings in the anguished cry, ‘I love you’.
Act 2. Aschenbach is troubled by rumours of a cholera outbreak in Venice. He sees the Polish family and begins distractedly following them. In a travel bureau, the English clerk advises Aschenbach to leave the city. In a dream interlude, the competing voices of Apollo and Dionysus are heard, culminating in a dark orgy. All restraint cast aside, Aschenbach attempts a winning rejuvenation at the Barbers, ironically recalling the Elderly Fop that so disgusted him earlier. He starts to follow the family again, but sinks down, exhausted, by a well-head where he traces his path to the abyss via Socrates’ words to Phaedrus. Back at the hotel Aschenback learns that the Polish family is due to leave. Out on the beach, Tadzio wrestles with Jaschiu but is overcome. Aschembach cries out as if to defend him. Tadzio begins a slow walk out to sea as Aschenbach slumps dead in his chair.
Did You Know?
1. Britten’s final opera: its composition delayed much-needed heart surgery, which eventually took place in May 1973.
2. The premiere was conducted by Steuart Bedford, as Britten was not well enough to take it on.
3. The principal tenor, playing Aschenbach, is on stage for nearly the whole opera. The baritone (performed by John Shirley-Quirk in the first production) takes on 7 separate roles.
4. Pears made his Metropolitan Opera debut at the age of 64 as Aschenbach, the last role Britten composed for him
5. The opera is dedicated ‘To Peter’.
2 flutes (doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in B flat & A (II doubling clarinet in E flat and bass clarinet), 2 bassoon (II doubling contrabassoon)
2 horns, 2 trumpets in C, 2 trombones, tuba
Timpani, 5 percussion (2 side drums, 2 tenor drums, 2 bass drum (1 large), 3 tom-toms, 3 Chinese drums, small drum, tuned drum in C, cymbal, small cymbal, 2 suspended cymbals, tambourine, woodblock, triangle, 2 whips (large and small), 2 tuned gongs, 2 tam-tams (large and small), wind machine, bells, bell-tree, crotales, vibraphone, 2 glockenspiels, 2 xylophones (1 small), marimba), harp, piano
Strings (minimum 18.104.22.168.2)
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