Read the synopsis for Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice.
Gustav von Aschenbach, a famous author, is prompted by failing inspiration to leave his disciplined routine of work in Munich, to seek rejuvenation abroad. After a series of extraordinary encounters, he arrives in Venice. He is struck by the beauty of a young Polish boy, Tadzio, and despite several attempts to leave, eventually surrenders to his infatuation.
Unbeknown to him, Venice has become infected with cholera. When Aschenbach finds out, he decides not to tell the boy’s family and to stay on despite the danger, to pursue his obsession.
Gustav von Aschenbach had set out for an extended walk. He was overwrought by a morning of nerve-taxing work.
He was brought back to reality by the sight of a man. The pilgrim air the stranger wore kindled his fantasy. He felt a youthfully ardent thirst for distant scenes. This craving for freedom was an impulse towards flight from a rigid daily service to literature. He turned to look back at the man; he was no longer there.
Aschenbach was shocked to see that one of the youths on board was no youth at all; the dull carmine of the cheeks was rouge.
‘Au revoir, votre Excellence’, he giggled at Aschenbach. ‘Give our love will you, to the pretty little darling .. .’
Aschenbach saw that his gondola was heading for the open sea.
‘The Signore is going to the Lido’, said the old gondolier.
‘Yes I am, but not with you. I am using the vaporetto from San Marco’.
‘But the Signore cannot use the vaporetto, because the vaporetto does not take luggage.’
Alone on the water with this obstinate, uncanny man, he saw no way of enforcing his will. A boat came alongside full of men and women singing. At the Lido, Aschenbach was already onshore before he noticed that the gondola and gondolier were gone.
The manager showed him his room. Here was the sea; he saluted it with his eyes.
A large number of guests had collected in the hall. Polish was being spoken – a group of young folk in the charge of a Governess – two young girls, and a boy of about fourteen. Aschenbach noticed with astonishment the lad’s perfect beauty.
A waiter announced dinner. A woman entered the hall wearing fabulous pearls. The brother and sisters greeted their mother.
Beneath an overcast sky the sea lay sluggish. Aschenbach felt out of sorts and already began to think of leaving; if the wind did not turn this was not the place for him.
A vendor sold ripe strawberries. As he sat there dreaming, he saw the boy coming along the sand.
Aschenbach listened to the boy’s companions as they called his name repeatedly. The grave and serious man speculated what name sounded like ‘Adgio’ and at length fixed on ‘Tadzio’. His heartfelt a father’s kindness.
There was a hateful sultriness in the narrow streets. Beggars waylaid him, the canals sickened him with their evil exhalations. The city proved that in certain weathers, it could be directly inimical to his health. He hailed a gondola and once back in his hotel, he announced his departure. The Management expressed its regret and ordered a motorboat to convey him to the station. Aschenbach felt confused and requested the porter to take his trunk; he would follow by gondola.
The air seemed fresher. Had he not let himself be swayed by a slight and momentary indisposition? Tadzio entered. ‘For the last time Tadzio’, thought the elder man. ‘It was all too brief. May God bless you.’
He arrived at the station. The hotel porter appeared and said that Aschenbach ‘s trunk had gone to Como. The trunk had been put with the wrong luggage before leaving the hotel and was now on its way in the wrong direction.
Aschenbach said he would not travel without his luggage; that he would return to the hotel until it turned up. He realised that it was for Tadzio’s sake the leave-taking had been so hard.
The beach was burning hot. Tadzio led an idle life of play with his companions. Aschenbach felt transported to Elysium. He whispered the hackneyed phrase of longing – absurd, ridiculous yet not unworthy of honour; ‘I love you’.
He heard something rather startling. ‘The Signore has no fear of the sickness, has he?’ ‘The sickness?’ Aschenbach repeated. The barber fell silent and busied himself.
Aschenbach pursued Tadzio to Venice. People were reading warnings from the city authorities telling of the danger of certain infections prevalent during the summer. ‘Just a formal precaution Signore, probably unnecessary.
The Polish family went to Mass at San Marco and Aschenbach, driven by his mania, followed. He stole behind them on their walk through the city. The family took a gondola and he did the same. Returning late from Venice he paused by Tadzio’s chamber door and remained there, powerless to tear himself away.
A band of street musicians came to perform in the hotel. The head of the company was a baritone buffo.
‘Is there plague in Venice?’ asked Aschenbach. The baritone answered: ‘What sort of plague? Is the scirocco a plague? Are the police a plague? You are making fun of us Signore?’
The clerk worked for an English travel bureau. ‘No ground for alarm sir, a mere formality. At least that is the official explanation .. .’
Asiatic cholera was carried by sea to Europe from the swamps of the Ganges. In May, two bodies had been found and within a week, ten more. All reports had been suppressed.
‘You would do well to leave today instead of tomorrow. The blockade cannot be more than a few days off.’
One decent course lay open to Aschenbach. Tonight, he would approach the Lady of the Pearls and address her: ‘Madam, will you permit an entire stranger to serve you with a word of advice? Leave here at once ·without delay with Tadzio and your daughters. Venice is in the grip of pestilence.‘
The thought of losing the object of his obsession made him nauseous. ‘I will not speak.’
He heard loud confused noises from far away; a voice calling. ‘The stranger god!’ He awoke shattered, unhinged, powerless in the demon’s grip.
Many of the bathing cabins stood empty. Tadzio remained; Aschenbach no longer cared whether he was a subject of suspicion.
The presence of Youth filled him with disgust of his own ageing body.
‘We are as old as we feel.’ said the Barber, ‘and grey hair can misrepresent a man worse than dyed. Surely you will permit me to restore what belongs to you?’
Aschenbach with fevered cheeks beneath the rouge pursued Tadzio into the stricken city’s heart. The labyrinthine streets quite made him lose his bearings; his head burned, he was plagued by intolerable thirst. He looked for refreshment and bought strawberries.
In the hotel lobby he saw luggage lying ready, asked whose it was and received in answer the name he expected – that of the Polish family. Aschenbach went down to the beach. Tadzio was there at the water’s edge.
Before nightfall a shocked and respectful world received the news of Aschenbach’s decease.
Taken from the 1992 Festival Programme book