Opera in two acts (duration 2 hours 25 minutes)

Libretto by Myfanwy Piper after the novella by Thomas Mann

A quick introduction

When was it written?

December 1971 – March 1973, revised June 1973-October 1974. The first performance was on 16 June 1973 at Snape Maltings Concert Hall in the Aldeburgh Festival.

What’s it about?

Britten’s final opera is about a writer, Aschenbach, who travels to Venice to try and cure his writer’s block and falls unexpectedly and completely in love with a Polish youth called Tadzio. His passion for Tadzio causes him to remain in Venice during a cholera epidemic, leading ultimately to his death.

What does it sound like?

Britten creates a unique soundworld for this opera, making use of his experience in imaginative percussion effects for the sections with Tadzio, who is played by a dancer. This music is quite reminiscent of the re-created gamelan sounds he used in his 1956 ballet The Prince of the Pagodas, and contrasts with the much drier, more tightly-controlled music for Aschenbach.

Watch & listen

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’.

The plot

Time and Place: Munich, Venice, the Lido, 1911

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.

For information about performing forces and where to buy/hire a score please visit the publisher pages.