A warning about the cost of love

11 July 2007

Benjamin Britten’s opera Death in Venice is a Passion for a sexual culture, says Martin Shaw

A passion that never intruded: Ian Bostridge as Aschenbach and Benjamin Paul Griffiths as Tadzio in the recent ENO production

A passion that never intruded: Ian Bostridge as Aschenbach and Benjamin Paul Griffiths as Tadzio in the recent ENO production

To suggest that Benjamin Britten’s opera Death in Venice could be a Passion narrative may seem puzzling. Perhaps Britten himself would have scorned the suggestion. Yet he would certainly agree that passion, as a human experience, is a significant feature of the opera. I have seen several approaches to it, and recently, one directed by Deborah Warner for English National Opera (ENO), which suggests even more that it has subtle parallels to a Passion narrative.

The opera concerns the interior tensions, agonies, and death of Gustav von Aschenbach, an ageing widower and established author, sung by a tenor. Of course, for many, Death in Venice as a tale was made famous by the Visconti movie, where Gustav von Aschenbach is made into a composer.

The opera’s libretto, like the movie, is based on a short novel by the great 20th-century German writer, Thomas Mann, which had become for Benjamin Britten a profound expression of the underlying experiences of his life with his partner, the tenor Peter Pears.

Throughout the opera, Aschenbach shares intimately with the audience his inner reflections: the tensions between being an author and the growing but overwhelming attraction he has for a beautiful adolescent boy. It is as if Aschenbach is singing recitatives — narratives, reminiscent of Bach’s Passions.

The tenor Evangelist in these Passions, of course, sings of Christ’s experience of his journey towards death. Aschenbach narrates his own journey. Christ’s Passion is the culmination of a struggle between his gospel of a coming kingdom of love, and a kingdom that protects itself from the challenges of love. Aschenbach’s Passion is a struggle between a lurching possessiveness, and a freedom that reaches out of the intellect — a love that lets go.

As the opera begins, Aschenbach has writer’s block. In the hope of shifting it, he leaves on a holiday. A dark stranger urges him ominously to travel south. A single baritone sings this role along with several contrasting ones. All of them subtly lead Aschenbach in one direction: his death. For example, an actor offers distracting entertainment that barely masks the fate that faces Aschenbach and the hotel guests, as news of disease grips Venice.


Denis de Rougemont, the 20th-century Swiss philosopher, warned in his book, Passion and Society (1939), that the preoccupation of art (in all its forms) with passion can be destructive. He chooses as his guiding image the myth of Tristan and Isolde, and the ravishing music-drama composed by Richard Wagner.

Tristan and Isolde’s love for each other is illicit and so overwhelming in its psychological and erotic confusion that it can be realised only in their death — indeed, their suicide. The suggestion is that love is fulfilled only in dangerous circumstances, and never in stable relationships. So society is undermined by desperate passion. This preoccupation with passion, de Rougemont claimed intriguingly, has risen to a critical level in our Western culture in the past two centuries.

Passion, de Rougemont says, can never be satisfied. If there is ever any level of satisfaction, passion ceases. So passion becomes an end in itself — a seduction that leads to destruction, not only of the one who becomes overwhelmed with passion, but also of the object of the passion.

This is the fatal inclination of our culture, which sees fulfilment only in the unattainable. Thus, the passion of von Aschenbach for the beautiful boy becomes so powerful that he becomes increasingly distanced from his disciplined craft as a writer.

What makes Thomas Mann’s story so much more powerful in the opera is the sheer delicacy of Britten’s music. In this sexually and perhaps even genitally obsessed culture, to be focused on a man’s attraction to a boy as the root of the opera is to miss the deeper significance of de Rougemont’s warning, which I believe is the work’s abiding burden.

The interior struggle in the writer Aschenbach between the importance of discipline to create beauty in writing, on the one hand, and the desire to be engulfed in unrestrained passion on the other, is beautifully captured with reflective simplicity in the libretto.

  The music takes us further into the heart of that struggle between order and desire. Britten captures this unattainable beauty of Tadzio by exotic percussion instruments: gorgeous, but somehow tantalisingly taking Tadzio beyond Aschenbach’s and our reach.

  Britten introduces Aschenbach’s inner reflection with strange and unsettling piano accompaniment.

How much better to live, not words but beauty,

  To exist in it, and of it.

  How much better than my detached and solitary way.

How much better to live, not words but beauty,

  To exist in it, and of it.


These recitatives invite the audience to risk making a deeper pilgrimage. And so Britten makes, for me, connections to the Evangelist in Bach’s Passions, where the story is conveyed through a narrator with a similar spare accompaniment.

The struggle between self-discipline and desire, and its inevitable conclusion (which might be regarded as the destruction of Aschenbach), is in fact his freedom. Perfection has drawn him towards obsession. Darkness has somehow shown him that he will have to let go of his obsession. In a sombre moment that only Britten’s wistfulness can capture, Aschenbach sings “So be it!” He is willing to be caught in the tension.

In the final scene of Death in Venice, Aschenbach expires from the effects of disease. In the ENO production, he is sprawled pathetically on the sand, and reaches out to Tadzio, who does not even notice. But he struggles to his deckchair, and, as he dies, watches Tadzio idly wandering on the beach, free and apparently unaffected.

Did Aschenbach’s collapse liberate Tadzio? After all, Christ’s Passion is fundamentally concerned with a letting go. His coming kingdom is not about religious acquisitiveness and power, but about a love that expends itself, and, bluntly, gets out of the way. As Simone Weil, the French philosopher, put it: “God distances himself from himself.”

A true Passion, then, is never really noticed, at least not in that moment. It is not a moment of heroic self-sacrifice. And so the failing and pathetic writer slumps into oblivion, having let slip a passion that never intruded. The opera, for me, was indeed a Passion.

The Rt Revd Martin Shaw is Bishop of Argyll & The Isles.

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