A Musical Exploration of Death in Venice

1 February 2024

Benjamin Britten’s last ever opera Death in Venice boasts a whole range of exploratory, gripping and moving music and we at Welsh National Opera can’t wait to perform this rarely performed piece across venues in Wales and England this Spring. Join us as we take a deep dive into the operatic sound world of 1910s Venice and examine some of its most special moments. 

My Mind Beats On….

As one of the most psychologically intense operas ever written, and with no Overture to kick things off, we’re launched straight into the haunting world of Gustav von Aschenbach’s troubled thoughts. Stuck for ideas for his next literary work, his mind continually ‘beats on’, accompanied by the repeating single notes of the wind and brass, and disrupting harp glissandi, demonstrating the monotony of his tortured inner monologue. This is about as close as we get to a formal character aria, as Death in Venice is an example of what is called a ‘through-composed opera’, where music flows without interruption from beginning to end - ie, with no stand-alone pieces or arias for characters or orchestra.

The Orientalism of Tadzio

On reaching Venice and settling on the beach, Aschenbach is struck by the beauty of a young Polish boy, Tadzio, who is staying in the same hotel as him. Five percussionists playing tuned and untuned instruments are used to create Tadzio’s unique, silvery soundscape. Inspired by the ‘oriental’ music of Britten’s travels to East Asia during the 1950s, the vibraphone among other percussion instruments feature prominently to portray Tadzio as an untouchable, god-like being, who is dangerously alluring to Aschenbach.

The Games of Apollo

Later, on the beach, Aschenbach sits to watch Tadzio and his friends have a sporting competition. Tadzio is compared to Apollo, the Greek god of the Sun, and Aschenbach remains silent throughout, the Chorus singing his thoughts aloud.  

Building up the tension to the final wrestling competition, the Chorus encourages the two boys to fight, and a loud wind machine is brutally unleashed on the action. Tadzio wins the games and his beauty of movement totally wins Aschenbach over. His passionate outpouring of inspiration leads him to realise how he’s been feeling towards Tadzio all along, singing I love you, and in doing so, sealing his fate.

Folk Songs of the Strolling Players

In Act II, Aschenbach is uneasy in Venice and knows something is not quite right - rumours of a deadly sickness are spreading throughout the city.

At the hotel restaurant Aschenbach’s meal is interrupted by a band of vulgar strolling players. Introduced by a trumpet call, the Leader of the players sings a crude little song, La mia nonna, mocking the infidelity of women, the cruel falsetto imitating his grandmother’s voice. The tune is Britten’s parody on an Italian folk song, and is accompanied by a marching drum, pizzicato strings and piano.

You can experience Britten’s moving and haunting music for yourself in WNO’s brand-new production of Death in Venice, visiting Cardiff, Llandudno, Southampton, Oxford, Bristol and Birmingham from 7 March to 11 May 2024.