According to a note in the Glimmerglass Festival’s program for this summer’s new production of Death in Venice, Benjamin Britten’s last opera ends in a question mark. I beg to differ. Few final moments in any opera strike me as so satisfyingly resolved. The great writer Aschenbach sits on the beach at the Lido, riddled by plague and dying, while the object of his obsession, the enigmatic youth Tadzio, slowly strolls into the sea. Their two representative musical motifs climb higher and higher, subtly intertwine, and at last join on a shimmering unison pianissimo just as Aschenbach expires and the boy disappears over the horizon. Opera finales don’t get more conclusive than this, or more beautiful.
Surely for Britten, the opera’s ending mystically unites and heals all the jarring opposites that had so deeply concerned him and his art throughout his life. Order and chaos, innocence and corruption, intellect and passion, the eternal Apollonian/Dionysian polarity—all this and more is pondered at length in Death in Venice. The homoerotic context is the milieu of the piece, and it would have been a powerful stimulation for Britten, whose own attraction to adolescent youths (apparently unacted upon) was something he had to battle. But Death in Venice is no more his gay magnum opus than Thomas Mann’s celebrated novella, upon which the opera is based, was intended as gay literature. Mann’s stated purpose was infinitely more far-reaching than that: to explore the relationship of life and mind, “an extremely delicate, difficult, agitating, painful relation charged with irony and eroticism.”
Another element of Mann’s Death in Venice that surely appealed to Britten was the opportunity it gave him to present one last gift to his lifelong partner and vocal muse, Peter Pears. The opera is essentially a two-and-a-half-hour monologue with brief interruptions, a tour de force for any tenor with the stamina and vocal chiaroscuro to bring it off. It also allowed Britten to extend his instrumental palette further into the world of the Balinese gamelan and invent the exotic textures that give the Apollonian games of Tadzio and his friends such an otherworldly flavor. And of course the atmosphere of Venice rises before us on every page of the score, the suffocating heat, the sense of disease festering in secret places, and the insidious networks of mysterious canals, all of which produces a fertile breeding ground for Aschenbach’s fears and constantly recurring nemesis figures.
The Glimmerglass production, co-produced with (and due to travel to) the City Opera, benefits from Stewart Robertson’s careful conducting, but the staging is perplexing. Designer Donald Eastman has placed the entire action within the confines of a dark and musty Venetian palazzo–hotel room, with three French doors opening up to the blinding Italian sunlight—an effective set for some aspects of the piece, but far too confining to capture its full visual flavor or for director Tazewell Thompson to take advantage of the opera’s fluid cinematic character. This also pretty much ruins the final scene, in which Aschenbach dies on the floor and Tadzio perversely walks slowly toward the audience.
For some traditionalists, Tadzio performed by a mature-looking part-Asian dancer will also be a startling departure, although Scott Chiba lacks nothing in grace and physical charisma. It’s far more unsettling to transform Apollo (John Gaston) from a disembodied countertenor voice into a man who sports a white suit, bare feet, sunglasses, and a strong resemblance to Elton John. David Pittsinger performs a virtuoso turn as the six nemeses, while William Burden, totally absorbed in the role of Aschenbach, is quite magnificent, sounding as fresh and responsive at the end of the opera as he does at the beginning.