Death in Venice

General Information

GenreOpera .  LanguageEnglishYear of the Premiere1973Acts2


The famous writer Gustav von Aschenbach finds his inspiration failing in his 50s. Walking past a cemetery he meets a mysterious traveller who puts into his mind the idea of travel to exotic foreign parts. He yields to the impulse to go south in the hope of spiritual refreshment. 
On the boat to Venice, a rouged elderly fop pesters Aschenbach with his conversation and insinuations that Aschenbach is in search of a "little darling," and Aschenbach finds that the approach to Venice does not give him the joy he was expecting. In a gondola on the way to his hotel Aschenbach wakes from a reverie about "ambiguous Venice" to find he is being taken the wrong way. Despite his protests, the old gondolier refuses to change course, saying that "the signore will pay." At the quay the gondolier disappears without waiting to be paid, leaving Aschenbach to compare his strange voyage with the journey across the Styx with Charon the ferryman. 
The hotel manager welcomes Aschenbach effusively and shows him his room, with a view of the beach. Aschenbach reflects ironically on the contrast between his distinguished career and his present experiences, where everything is strange and "out of focus." Watching the cosmopolitan guests preparing for dinner, he is particularly struck by a young Polish boy, whose mysterious beauty is in marked contrast to his two plain sisters. Aschenbach reflects on the artist's treacherous proneness to side with beauty.
On the beach, the weather is oppressive. Aschenbach is unable to work and fears he may have to leave. He watches children at play and buys some strawberries from an itinerant vendor and begins to find peace in the scene, seeing in the sea a form of the perfection he has always striven for. The beautiful Polish boy joins the children, and assumes the position of leader. Aschenbach hears his name - Tadzio - and feels a father's pleasure in the boy's beauty which it seems he might almost have created himself. He reflects that his life has become too detached and solitary. 
Aschenbach crosses to the city in a gondola and strolls through the streets, where he is pestered by would-be guides, beggars and street vendors. Oppressed by the weather and the crowd he feels the need for fresh mountain air, and rushes back to the hotel to announce his departure, to the fulsome regret of the manager.  Although finding the air fresher and regretting the shortness of his acquaintance with Tadzio, he sets off by gondola, but finds that his luggage has been put on the wrong train. He decides to return, glad that his hand has been forced and feeling invigorated, for once, by the disruption to his normally orderly way of life.  Seeing Tadzio again, he realises that the boy is the reason for his reluctance to leave. 
Aschenbach sits in a chair on the beach watching Tadzio and the other children playing. They work their way through the five sports of the Greek pentathlon, with a commentary by the chorus and the voice of Apollo, so that the games are transformed into a ritual.  Tadzio wins everything and the voice of Apollo proclaims that "beauty is the mirror of spirit." Aschenbach feels his inspiration renewed by Tadzio - he will be set free by beauty. He wishes to congratulate Tadzio, but even though the boy smiles as he passes, Aschenbach is strangely tongue-tied, only able to stammer "I love you" after Tadzio has gone. 
Aschenbach broods on the fact that he could find only those hackneyed words to express his emotion. The hotel barber mentions "the sickness," but changes the subject when Aschenbach asks him to explain. Crossing to the city Aschenbach finds notices giving warnings about infection. No one will answer his questions, but he buys a German newspaper and learns that cholera is suspected in the city.  Seeing the Polish family, he resolves that they must learn nothing that may make them leave. He follows them into St Mark's and is sure that Tadzio is aware of him. He follows their gondola back to the hotel - first reproaching himself for his weakness, then bowing to the power of Eros. 
Three singers perform for the hotel guests. When the leader takes his hat around Aschenbach questions him about the plague, but is answered evasively.  The players sing a mocking song and Aschenbach is pleased because Tadzio does not join in the general laughter, but remains aloof like him.  An English clerk is trying to deal with a crowd of people wanting to make arrangements to leave Venice. He tells Aschenbach the truth about the cholera, describing its progress westwards from the delta of the River Ganges.  Warning of the chaos to come, he advises Aschenbach to leave while he can. Aschenbach tries to bring himself to warn Tadzio's mother, but finds himself tongue-tied. He realises that he is beginning to welcome the general disintegration and toying with the idea that only he and Tadzio might be left alive. 
Aschenbach dreams a debate between Dionysus (indulgence and unreason) and Apollo (restraint and reason). The victory of Dionysus reflects his demoralisation and he is resigned to let the gods do their will with him. 
Aschenbach repeats his surrender: "Do what you will with me." Aschenbach allows a barber to dye his hair and paint his face.  Aschenbach follows the Polish family around the city. Seeing Tadzio waiting for him, he turns away. He loses the family. He buys strawberries, but this time they are over-ripe.  Tired and ill, he rests, meditating on the words of Socrates to Phaedrus: "Beauty leads to wisdom but through the senses ... and senses lead to passion and passion to the abyss." 
The hotel manager prepares to farewell guests and Aschenbach learns that the Polish family is to leave after lunch.  He goes out to the beach where Tadzio is playing with other boys. For the first time Tadzio is dominated and his friend Jaschiu grinds his face into the sand. 
As the others run off, Tadzio walks far out to sea, seeming to beckon to Aschenbach, who slumps in his chair - dead.


Gustav von AschenbachTenor

A novelist

Elderly fopBass-Baritone

Old gondolierBass-Baritone

Hotel ManagerBass-Baritone

Hotel BarberBass-Baritone

Leader of the playersBass-Baritone

Voice of DionysusBass-Baritone


The Polish MotherMute

Tadzio's mother
Voice of ApolloCountertenor

Hotel PorterTenor


Hotel waiterBass

Russian motherSoprano

Russian FatherBass

German motherMezzo-soprano

Strawberry sellerSoprano

A guideBaritone

Lace sellerSoprano

Newspaper sellerSoprano


Strolling playerTenor

Strolling playerMezzo-soprano

English clerkBaritone