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Death in Venice

Opera in two acts. Op. 88 (1973)

Pears as von Aschenbach in the original production of Death in Venice, 1973. Photo: Nigel Luckhurst. Libretto by Myfanwy Piper after the novella by Thomas Mann

First performance

16 June 1973, Snape Maltings Concert Hall

Death in Venice
was composed during a time of great physical and psychological stress for Britten: aware that he was in urgent need of major heart surgery, he postponed the operation until he had completed the work which was, in part, intended as a supreme vehicle for and tribute to the voice and artistry of Pears.

However, in choosing a story that embodied so many of the underlying dramatic themes that had characterised his entire output, Britten also seemed to be making his final opera a conscious summation of his life’s work. He is likely to have strongly identified with the opera’s hero, the writer Gustav von Aschenbach who, aware of failing powers, seeks inspiration by travelling to Venice where he falls in love with the young Polish boy Tadzio. Aschenbach has no contact or connection with the boy, his family and his companions however, and it was an inspired idea of Britten’s to cast them in non-singing roles as dancers, accompanied by the colourful, glittering sounds of tuned percussion to emphasize their remoteness. 

Although the music of Death in Venice is generally restrained and the textures economical, the work inhabits a very distinctive and evocative atmosphere and is a gloriously fitting culmination to Britten’s operatic career.
Audio: from act 2, scene 16. Peter Pears (Gustav von Aschenbach), English Chamber Orchestra, Steuart Bedford (cond). Courtesy of Decca Classics and Faber Music.

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Death in Venice