In the beginning, there was the novella by Thomas Mann. Published in 1912, it tells the story of Gustave Aschenbach, a writer in the throes of a creative crisis. He needs to get away from stifling Munich. He goes to Venice where he meets 14 year old Tadzio, a child so innocent his mother has yet to find it in her heart to cut his curls.
His face recalled the noblest moments of Greek sculpture – pale, with a sweet reserve, with clustering honey-coloured ringlets, the brow and nose descending in one line, the winning mouth, the expression of pure and godlike serenity.Thomas Mann, Death in Venice
Earlier this month, my husband and I saw a sublime adaptation of Death in Venice at the Royal Theater Carré. It was a joint production of the International Theater Amsterdam and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. My husband fancies himself quite the classical music aficionado. He thought he heard Mahler. Not so.
Why Mahler? Because there’s more than one Death in Venice.
There is the 1971 Visconti film generally acknowledged to be an art house classic. In that version, Aschenbach appears as a conductor whose disastrous last concert in his hometown of Munich causes him to flee to Venice. Mahler’s 3rd and 5th Symphonies provide the musical decor of this film and much of its emotional subtext.
In 1973, Benjamin Britten turned Death in Venice into an opera. He wrote the role of Aschenbach for his long time partner, the tenor Peter Pears, though Britten died before he could see this work performed. In the opera, Aschenbach is once again a writer who asks: Does Beauty Lead to Wisdom? Tadzio, the unrequited love of Aschenbach’s life, has no singing or speaking role in the opera. He is a dancer.
Aschenbach the Shapeshifter
There are numerous balletic adaptations of Death in Venice. In 2003 John Neumeier choreographed a ballet for the Hamburg Ballet, using music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Richard Wagner, and a little Jethro Tull.
In this ballet, Aschenbach is a choreographer pitting his need for artistic control against his desire for creative freedom. Tadzio serves as the incarnation of the latter.
There are many pop cultural references to Death in Venice. There’s the cocktail designed by Tony Conigliaro, the novel Love and Death on Long Island by British author Gilbert Adair, and the famous line from Woody Allen’s classic, Annie Hall:
What’s so great about New York? I mean, it’s a dying city. You read Death in Venice.Diane Keaton in Annie Hall (1997)
Of the multitudinous stage adaptations of Death in Venice, some were better received than others. One production at the 2013 Edinburgh Festival received the moniker “Dearth in Venice“. So there is something at stake for anyone trying to add their own gloss to the rich patina of Deaths in Venice.
The ITA sees the autobiographical nature of Death in Venice as creative license to conflate author and creation. In her memoir, Unwritten Memories, Mann’s wife Katia confirms that, on a family vacation to Venice in 1911, Mann became obsessed with a young boy staying at their hotel. The Real Tadzio by Gilbert Adair (the one who wrote a novel version of Death in Venice) identifies this boy as Wladyslaw Moes. He was the son of an aristocratic Polish family, who says he did not acknowledge himself to be the object of Mann’s affections until he saw the Visconti film.
In the ITA production, Aschenbach is the alter ego of his creator, Thomas Mann. Mann suffers from writer’s block and projects his misery onto Aschenbach. At first, Aschenbach obeys the commands of his creator. He travels to Venice, he meets the boy-god Tadzio, he falls in love. Then Mann loses control. Aschenbach will light his cigarette whenever he damn well pleases. He must leave Venice now that a cholera epidemic has broken out. Mann and Aschenbach battle over Tadzio’s fate.
Meanwhile, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra plays on. It wasn’t the full orchestra. They would have taken up too much space. A smaller configuration, set among potted palms and partially hidden behind a diaphanous curtain, made the RCO look like the sort of salon ensemble once common in a grand hotel on the Lido.
Rather than Mahler or Britten, the two composers most associated with Death in Venice, conductor David Robertson chose Mann’s contemporaries: Anton Webern, Richard Strauss, and Arnold Schönberg. Composer Nico Muhly wrote new music to introduce the theme of Charon: the boatman who steers the dead into Hades.
But Muhly’s greatest achievement is his adaptation of the duet ‘Pur ti miro’ from the opera L’Incoronazione di Poppea by Claudio Monteverdi. Muhly replaces the alto voice by a cor d’anglais, leaving the countertenor to soar in ethereal solitude.
Director Ivo van Hove, conductor David Robertson, and composer Nico Muhly all agree: it would be simplistic to describe their Death in Venice as primarily homoerotic or pedophilic. The questions are bigger than that.
Where does creativity come from? Where does love stem from, and what happens when love and creativity are blended together?David Robertson in an interview with Nina Siegal, “Another ‘Death in Venice’ makeover, The New York Times international edition, 9 Apr 2019
Or, as Thomas Mann himself tells us from the stage: It was never about the boy. It was about the idea.
The ITA / RCO adaptation of Death in Venice will tour Europe
in 2020, with performances planned in London, Paris, Barcelona,