Multi-Charactered Mayhem in Death in Venice

15 March 2024

This Spring Season has seen Welsh National Opera stage its first ever production of Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice. In the opera, the famous writer Gustav von Aschenbach goes to Venice to seek inspiration for a new work, where he falls head over heels for the young Tadzio and encounters seven mysterious and unsettling characters who usher him step by step towards his own death.

In adapting Death in Venice from the Thomas Mann novella of the same name, Britten decided to cast the seven roles for a single baritone to create a continual underlying feeling of doom that follows Aschenbach about. In WNO’s new five-star production these roles are sung masterfully by Roderick Williams. Let’s take a look at the characters in action and their unique role in speeding up Aschenbach’s mental disintegration. 

The Traveller
Walking through the suburbs of Munich where he lives, Aschenbach sees a mysterious stranger. His haunting appearance inspires Aschenbach to travel south to Venice. 

The Elderly Fop
The boat to Venice is full of boisterous young people, and Aschenbach soon realises that one of them is in fact an older man trying to look younger, dressed in ridiculous clothes and covered in makeup. Disgusted by the elderly fop, Aschenbach arrives in Venice in low spirits. 

Old Gondolier
The mysterious figure takes its form for the third time as the Old Gondolier who argues with Aschenbach about taking him to the Lido instead of Schiavone. The gondolier scarpers after they arrive ashore leaving Aschenbach to compare his journey as though he’d been taken across the Styx, the river of the underworld in Greek mythology. 

The Hotel Manager
The hotel manager welcomes Aschenbach and shows him to his room with a superb view of the beach. In the hotel Aschenbach is struck by the beauty of one of the guests staying there, Tadzio, who is holidaying with his Polish family. 

The Hotel Barber
In Act 2, Aschenbach gets his hair cut and is alarmed when the hotel barber mentions a ‘sickness’ but refuses to explain any more about it. The barber appears again later on in the opera to dress Aschenbach with a wig and full makeup, just like the Elderly Fop on the boat, earlier in the opera.

The Leader of the Players
After dinner on the hotel terrace, a group of strolling players entertain the guests with a few grotesque songs. At the first opportunity Aschenbach asks the leading player about the epidemic, but again, he receives no explanation. 

The Voice of Dionysus 
The last of the seven characters is Dionysus, the Greek god of intoxication, passion and chaos. While Aschenbach sleeps, he dreams of the gods Dionysus and Apollo fighting over him, with Dionysus winning his soul. From this point on, Aschenbach gives entirely into his desires and allows his deadly fate to overcome him.  

If these mysterious and disturbing characters have intrigued you, come and see the story unravel at a theatre near you as WNO’s new production of Death in Venice visits Southampton, Oxford, Bristol and Birmingham until 11 May 2024.