24 January 2020

Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice

I haven't been to the opera in a while, so late last year, I decided to check out the schedules and find an interesting one to watch. I ended up choosing Death in Venice by Benjamin Britten. I figured that this would be more of a modern opera, not like the typical ones by Verdi or Puccini. I was looking forward to it, though in the end, I felt rather strange.

See, the story is based on Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice. The main story is basically about a German middle-aged novelist, Gustav von Aschenbach, who due to some lack of inspiration, decides to go south from Germany to Venice, for an extended vacation. While there, he observes the other tourists, and in particular, Tadzio, a boy from a Polish family. The weird thing is that he falls madly in love with this boy, in a pederastic and obsessive way. And this is where I felt like squirming in my seat.

There is an epidemic of cholera that is slowly sweeping the city. And when Aschenbach learns about this, he at first thinks that he should warn the Polish family so that Tadzio could be saved, but then later on changes his mind, since if he doesn't warn them, then he would have more time to spend checking out Tadzio. He imagines what the world would be like if everyone else is dead except the two of them. Of course, in the end, they all die.

I never realised that the story would be rather morbid. In any case I wasn't expecting that the story had a homoerotic bent to it. Later on I realised that this opera was especially composed by Britten for his long-time partner, Peter Pears. No wonder there seemed to be plenty of gay couples in the audience, more than the typical, at least.

Musically, it was brilliant. I liked the colours and the orchestration. I liked the eastern motifs that Britten employed in this piece, with gamelan styles embedded within the work. It definitely is a very atypical opera, with no main soprano character at all. But the story definitely is slightly disturbing.

Finally, the stage was rather interesting, with a gigantic frame of a faded male face, as well as purple giant tulips that somehow served as a jumping board and stage area where teenage male bodies frolicked. There is plenty of colour contrast, with bright colours paired with black all throughout the opera. The main character, Gustav von Aschenbach, is more or less on stage for the entire time.

Overall, I enjoyed the production, but yes, it definitely is something that would make you think. And perhaps squirm.

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