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The Story Of 'Death In Venice'

Nicola Bowie as Lady of the Pearls and Scott Chiba as Tadzio in Glimmerglass Opera's production of <em>Death in Venice</em>.
Nicola Bowie as Lady of the Pearls and Scott Chiba as Tadzio in Glimmerglass Opera's production of Death in Venice.

ACT ONE opens in Munich, where the writer Gustav von Aschenbach is weary and uninspired. He meets a mysterious Traveler, who tells him stories about the beauty of distant places. Though Aschenbach believes utterly in a rigid code of discipline, he's enticed by the tales of the Traveler, and decides to take a journey "to the south."

In the next scene, Aschenbach is on a boat for Venice. The word "Serenissima," the historical term for Venice, is repeated over and over. He notices an elderly man, dressed like a fop, with dyed hair and rouged cheeks, and shudders in embarrassment for him. When Aschenbach gets to the city, he boards a gondola — a symbol of death, he notes — for a trip to Venice's famous beach, the Lido. There, he checks into his hotel. That evening, Aschenbach notices a Polish family with an exceptionally beautiful young boy named Tadzio. He muses on the tension between an artist's passion and a sense of beauty and the discipline required to create art. He sees in Tadzio an ideal of beauty he has never been able to attain in his work.

On the beach the next day, Aschenbach feels more oppressed than relaxed. Then Tadzio's family arrives. As he watches Tadzio play, Aschenbach feels what he describes as a fatherly sentiment.

Back at the hotel, fed up with the heat and crowds, Aschenbach tells the hotel manager that he's leaving. But because of a baggage mix-up on the way, his plans are thwarted, and he ends up back in Venice after all. When he sees Tadzio again, he's glad, and he resolves to stay.

In the final scene of Act One, Aschenbach once again watches Tadzio on the beach. In a burst of inspiration, he sings, "The boy shall inspire me. The power of beauty sets me free." And he's finally forced to recognize the truth: He is in love with Tadzio. As the boy passes him on the way to the hotel and smiles at him, Aschenbach sings to himself, "I love you."

As ACT TWO opens, Aschenbach agonizes over his emotions, and over the fact that he can't even speak to Tadzio. In the next scene, Aschenbach is in the hotel barbershop where he overhears rumors about some kind of illness in Venice. But when he asks the barber about it, the man is evasive. As Aschenbach walks around the city, he begins to hear more rumors: Some kind of infection is in the air, and people are advised to take precautions. The word "cholera" is mentioned but quickly dispelled. Aschenbach encounters the Polish family and follows them through the city.

In the next scene, Aschenbach and the other hotel guests are enjoying a show by a traveling troupe of actors, performing a satirical piece about love. When Aschenbach questions the leader about the supposed plague in the city, the music turns sinister.

At a travel agency, Aschenbach arrives to find the place thronged with nervous people. At first, the travel agent is just as evasive as everyone else has been, but he finally admits that "death is at work. The plague is with us." He advises Aschenbach to leave before the city is blockaded. Aschenbach goes back to the hotel determined to warn Tadzio's mother, but when the woman appears, Aschenbach is dumbstruck. He realizes that his only concern is his love for Tadzio.

That night, Aschenbach has a dream: Apollo and Dionysus are doing battle and Dionysus wins. Aschenbach wakes up in a fevered state, ashamed at the implication of his dream. Later, Aschenbach watches Tadzio and a few other children play on a nearly empty beach. Then, in the barbershop, Aschenbach gets his hair dyed and his cheeks rouged, a look that recalls the elderly fop in Act One.

He then follows the Polish family once again through the city. This time, Aschenbach has convinced himself not only that he looks attractive, but that Tadzio returns his feelings. He buys some strawberries from a vendor, but is disappointed that they're overripe and mushy. He draws an analogy with his artistic credo, meditating on sensuality and what he calls the "abyss" of passion.

In the final scene, the Hotel Manager and Porter discuss the departure of their guests. Aschenbach asks if the Polish family is also leaving. Yes, he's told, right after lunch. Aschenbach walks out to the deserted beach and sits in his usual chair. Tadzio and a few other boys come onto the beach and begin to play. Their play turns rough, and one of the boys shoves Tadzio's face into the sand. Seeing this, Aschenbach cries out and rises from his chair. The other children run off, leaving Tadzio alone. Aschenbach calls out the boy's name one last time, and Tadzio seems to respond. Then Aschenbach slumps in his chair and dies, as Tadzio walks out toward the sea.

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