Sunday, October 30, 2016


A gem of a precious libretto for a modern opera


If you just read the libretto without considering the music, hence without listening to the music, you have a very clear vision of this particular adaptation. It is in the text written if not composed in that libretto particularly faithful to Thomas Mann. So the main character, Gustav von Aschenbach is the eye through which we see, seize and deem the situation, what is happening in Germany first and then in Venice. Aschenbach is thus telling us the story he is witnessing. It is always his point of view that is expressed and what happens around him is seen through his eyes. He remains on the side, on the shoulder of the road, distant and yet close, physically distant and unable to enter the situation  he is watching, and at the same time this situation is entirely captured through Gustav von Aschenbach’s mind and consciousness via long introspective and speculative monologues. Gustav von Aschenbach hardly speaks to anyone apart from short questions, remarks or exclamations. No real discussion.

The whole story is the story of a rite of passage from Germany to Venice, from the hotel to the city, from life to death, from ancient Greece to modern world, from reality to mind, from the real world to imagination. And in fact this imagination is haunted by what he has done and achieved in his life and what he is going to leave behind and to whom he is going to leave it, hence his heritage.

He is haunted by Ancient Greece. There are numerous direct references to Greek mythology: Apollo, Ganymede, Hyacinth, Dionysus, Zephyr, and so many others. He is a classicist and as such has devised a theory of beauty based on distance, hence the absence of feelings, sentiments, passions, and yet this cult of beauty is a passion, even for him since he states at the beginning: “now passion itself has left me.” He has thus devised a passion for beauty that has lost or has been deprived of its emotional and sentimental dimension, as he says only once and in passing though not flippantly because his wife and his daughter are gone, meaning dead.

The Greek line calls upon Eros first, then Apollo, Hyacinth, Zephyr, Ganymede, all having to do with the love of a God Zeus or Apollo for a young man Ganymede or Hyacinth killed by jealousy, from Hera or Zephyr, and turned into something eternal, the constellation Aquarius, or eternally regenerating by its own means, the flower hyacinth, by their respective gods that were loving them and were marginally their lovers since the Greek could not think of love without physical intercourse, even and maybe especially pedophile both gay (Socrates) and heterosexual (Venus and Adonis). The parallel with Gustav von Aschenbach is the attraction he feels for the young teenager Tadzio (at the most 15 since Thomas Mann describes him has not having hairs in the armpits) who he would like to endow with his own creativity to propel him into some celestial glory.

This becomes clear when he evokes Socrates and Phaedrus when Socrates is going to drink the hemlock he has been sentenced to. It shows the older man does not want any physical intercourse with the younger man, but some mental exchange, communion, transfer so that Phaedrus can continue Socrates’ tradition, and he sure did but via Plato and his Phaedo and other dialogue or Phaedrus the play. Actually Gustav von Aschenbach is a writer in this adaptation like in the original and as such is writing, and in a way reading for us what he is writing, which is a description of and comment on what he witnesses and desires.

His dilemma is that his lifelong construction is coming to a point and a situation where and when it seems to be crumbling if not collapsing. His construction was a reduction of Eros to a mental shift from thought to reality along the following line: thought – feeling – mind – beauty – nature – ecstatic moment – genius – contemplation – reality, all coming true in the word meaning the use of words, but also a direct reference to God’s creative word, since he himself is a literary creator. This comes to grips with Tadzio and his real name Gustav von Aschenbach assumes to be Thaddeus which is mysterious as for its meaning. We can think that /thad-/ is one root and /-deus/ is another. The second is a nominative Latin noun referring to god and the first one seems to be connected to various roots in various languages boiling down to the verb praise, which would make the name to mean “praised by God, praised of God, God praising or God praised, always with the direct connection of God to the boy, God being the one who is praising, in this case the boy. You perfectly see the parallel with Ganymede and Hyacinth who were “loved” hence “praised” by their Gods Zeus and Apollo.

Gustav von Aschenbach is in the same way haunted by death, Socrates’ death, death lurking in Venice in the form of cholera, his own death he feels creeping up into him. He is dying, he will soon die, he actually dies on stage. If we might see some erotic dimension in the reference to Eros, we have to clearly understand that Gustav von Aschenbach blocked all occasions and all moments of desire he actually came to and never established communication or contact with the boy or with his mother. At best some eyes that locked onto some other eyes and that is probably a phantasm in Gustav von Aschenbach’s mind. He probably misunderstood the child’s curiosity or vague interest or even concern for that old man on the beach writing in his book. The smile of a child that age does not mean anything erotic, just plainly surprise, interest, curiosity or whatever along that line. When Gustav von Aschenbach finally comes to the conclusion that he loves him at the end of the first act, it is not what some would like to understand:

“Ah! Don’t smile like that!
No one should be smiled at like that.
(realizing the truth at last)
I – love you.”

That truth is love not the desire for any physical intercourse. At least not the one some may think of who cannot see love is not hormonal but first of all mental, and at that level the attraction is for what is identical, similar to you, with whom you can share an existential vista in life and achieve some similar goal: here the similar goal is beauty: the ideal mental beauty Gustav von Aschenbach has created and devised in his writing career and the beauty this boy embodies in real flesh, but a beauty that remains a mental set of proportions and forms. At the beginning of the second act he will come back to this phrase and will discard it:

“. . . the hackneyed words ‘I love you’. . . This ‘I love you’ must be accepted; ridiculous and sacred too and no, not dishonorable, even in these circumstances.”

Ridiculous for an old man to love a boy of course: what does he expect from that improbable meeting? But sacred too since the old writer loves his ideal of beauty realized in the proportions and forms of this boy, hence some divine connection between an ideal and a reality. And in no way dishonorable since it has nothing to do with voluptuous pleasures that would ne pedophile and thus despicable. And then he goes to the barber’s shop for the first time where he is not going to have himself made up for the boy, like an old teasing boy-tempting gigolo, but in fact he is going through some symbolical embalming. He is preparing himself not for the meeting with the boy that will never happen but for the meeting with death that is bound to come, that is coming, that is already here.

And yet he comes to a very selfish and self-centered position when he finally knows some epidemic is going around in Venice and express his resolution about the Polish family, hence Tadzio:

“They must receive no hint.
They must not be told.
They must not leave.”

And that’s the fundamental point. The boy has to stay because he has a part to play in the old man’s death and that part is clear at the end, the very end. He is the psychopomp, in Greek mythology a guide of souls to the place of the dead, of Gustav von Aschenbach. He is the one who takes him from the world of the living to the world of the dead. He is the one who is making him cross the Styx to deliver him in Hadesn he is Dante’s guide to hell, Virgil. He is the one who can best bring Gustav von Aschenbach’s life to its end and introduce him to his posterity. He is the best relay to that posterity. And yet it is vain in Gustav von Aschenbach’s mind because he has transmitted nothing to the boy, he has not even spoken one word to him. But he thinks; the boy is more or less following his intentions, sentiments, postures, etc., as if there were some mental extra-sensorial communication. But that is an illusion and we can consider it as pure nostalgia of an old man for the time when he was a boy the age of Tadzio.

This adaptation is a long song and cult to death seen as a closure and as a loss, but we have to wonder if the bigger loss is on the side of the dying or on the side of the living. The tale here tries to imply the loss is on both sides though it can only be mental, abstract, and yet the younger survivor is taking along into his own life the feeling and maybe emotion he felt when he locked his eyes onto Gustav von Aschenbach’s eyes and smiled. He will forever remember that moment of flippant emotion.

When you have read the libretto like that, you can then wonder what Britten is going to do with it and the music he is going to add to every single word, particularly when one actor is going to be constantly present along with Gustav von Aschenbach because he is The traveler who announces at the beginning there is going to be a passage from here to there; the Elderly Fog who is passing from Trieste to Venice on the boat and who is passing with a band of young boys going to Venice to meet the girls; the Old Gondolier who will pass him from the harbor to the Lido against his will and disappear before he could pay for the ride; the Hotel Manager who is passing him from the entrance to his room and from his room to the beach through his window he opens, and from the hotel to the outside world on departure day; the Leader of the Players who is passing everyone from their rich surrounding to his sorry and squalid songs from the bleak world outside; the Hotel Barber who will embalm him in the second act into a fake renewed person or perambulating body at the most, passing him from the old living person he was, maybe still is, to a younger looking vain already dead perambulating corpse; and finally Dionysus, the son of Zeus and Semele who was killed by Hera, Zeus’ wife, and yet Zeus managed to save the young embryo of Dionysus by embedding him in his thigh to incubate till birth them parted.

This Dionysus appears to Gustav von Aschenbach in his dream as the opponent and contender of Apollo. Against Apollo’s trinity of “beauty, reason, form” that founds Gustav von Aschenbach’s belief in non-erotic and de-carnalized beauty based on mental reason and abstract form, Dionysus defends a more sensitive, emotional, passionate, sense-based life:

“Receive the stranger god. . .”
“Do not turn away from life. . . “
“Do not refuse the mysteries. . . “
“He who denies the god, denies his nature. . . “
“Come! Beat on the drums. . . “
“Stumble in the reeling dance. . . “
“Goad the beasts with garlanded staves,
Seize their horns,
Ride into the throng.
Behold the sacrifice. . . “
“Taste it, taste the sacrifice.
Join the worshippers;
Embrace, laugh, cry;
To honor the god.
I am he!”

This Dionysus in Gustave von Aschenbach’s dream defeats Apollo and yet the dreamer when he wakes up is not able to enter the dance of love, of pleasure, of bliss, of physical enjoyment. He will remain with Apollo and his de-carnalized conception of love as beauty and not orgasm. Gustav von Aschenbach did not have a wet dream in his sleep in spite of Dionysus. In fact he never got his feet wet because he never went to the sea and he only crossed water pieces of any size with a ship, a gondola or a bridge, never feet first in the water.

We can regret this character’s impotence or frigidity but he is not in anyway trying to seduce the boy, which would make him a pedophile; not trying to make the boy seduce him since he never encouraged any contact by being unable to establish even the beginning of such contact.

He is a writer who is conscious at the end of his life, that he leaves behind no one and maybe nothing that could perpetuate his creativity. Thomas Mann like Benjamin Britten left this world with no one to continue their work. At best their works have been collected and are still published or performed but in no way continued though we could say many writers and composers owes something, maybe  a lot, to Thomas Mann or Benjamin Britten. So after all it is for Mann and Britten some sad nostalgia for youth at the time when they bare passing to the other side with the help of a psychopomp vision of a young teenager who looks beautiful to them in their old age.


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