Friday, November 04, 2016


The beauty of death is in love


I came to this coproduction English National Opera, London, and Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels, after the long process of reading the original novella by Thomas Mann, reading the libretto by Myfanwy Piper, listening to the original sound recording with Peter Pears, watching Visconti’s film adaptation of the novella and watching the old production by the Glyndebourne Touring Opera. And I think that was the normal procedure to really catch the meaning of the novella and of Benjamin Britten’s opera in its libretto and in its music the way Benjamin Britten meant it to be. I was seriously disappointed by the Glyndebourne production that made Tadzio a tease and thus insisted on an abstract and yet pathetically present and emphasized sensual and physical attraction of Gustav von Aschenbach for Tadzio, an attraction that was guided into something slightly perverse by the way Tadzio was playing the tease all along and particularly in the second act.

That’s when I discovered this English National Opera production that is for me the perfect materialization on stage of what the deeper, more poignant and fascinating meaning of the opera in Thomas Mann’s as well as Benjamin Britten’s intentions. They were in no way telling a slightly perverse pedophile story but something that reached the highest possible peak of understanding of what creativity is seen as the search of beauty and the sudden realization by an older writer (composer in Visconti’s film which is slightly ambiguous as for this meaning) that he is going to die and finds in the vision of a nostalgic apparition, that of a mid-teens boy on a beach in Venice, that this nostalgia is the best psychopomp, in Greek mythology a guide of souls to the place of the dead, he can have to pass to the other side of this life that has come to an end with the desire mentally realized, hence a halliucination, or an illusion, that he is able to transfer his creative life energy to that 15 year old.

But first the libretto.

If you just read the libretto without considering the music, hence without listening to it, 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. No real exchange.

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 the modern world, from reality to the 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. And that means this go-between is going to be the psychopomp he needs to pass over to the other side.

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,” though some may say at this moment Gustav von Aschenbach considers his creative power is stalled: hence his procedure of getting passions out might be creatively suicidal.  He would thus have 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 (also called Phoebus), 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 as 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, Gustav von Aschenbach just like Socrates, does not want any physical intercourse with the younger man, Tadzio just the same as Phaedrus, but some mental exchange, communion, transfer so that Phaedrus or Tadzio can continue Socrates’ or Gustav von Aschenbach’s traditions, and Socrates sure did but via Plato and his Phaedo and other dialogue or Phaedrus the play, so not Phaedrus himself: here the simile comes from Thomas Mann who is the author through whom the fictional Gustav von Aschenbach survives, finds a second life beyond his death though not through Tadzio, with maybe a second tier in the simile in which Thomas Mann metaphorically identified to Gistave von Aschenbach survives or finds a second life beyond his death metaphorically evoked in Gustav von Aschenbach’s death in Benjamin Britten evocation. Actually Gustav von Aschenbach is a writer in this adaptation like in the original and as such is writing in the story, and in a way reading for us what he is writing, which is a description of and comment on what he witnesses and desires. The music is going to set apart these passages of prose reading as opposed to the rest that is description or report of what is happening around the writer and not in his mind.

Gustav von Aschenbach’s 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. You can see the parallel with Gustav von Aschenbach who as a writer controls the creative and divine word of literature and as such can praise the boy in the same way Apollo praised Hyacinth and Zeus Canymede.

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 might actually have come to and never established any 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 deeply connected with some pleasurable transference. 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 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, as identified by Gustav von Aschenbach: 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.”

Note here the three qualifiers “ridiculous, sacred . . . and no, not dishonorable . . .” come after the third repetition of “I love you” with a big pause between the first and the second. This ternary figure is fundamental in this libretto where it represents some level of perfection but here that perfection is warped if not distorted by the contradictory “ridiculous” and “sacred” amplified by the negative, triple negative in fact, “no, not dishonorable,” as well as by the aforementioned pause that is reproduced in a sort of mirror image by the double negation “no, not” that works like the pause between the two acts.

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 it is in no way dishonorable since it has nothing to do with voluptuous pleasures that would be 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 predator, 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 it is interesting that the barber, one identity of the multiple character devised by Benjamin Britten, more about him later, pronounces the word “sickness” for the first time, which confirms Gustav von Aschenbach in his anxiety about it that caused his false or failed departure. We can in fact think that what Gustav von Aschenbach calls his renewed creativity at the end of the first act in which he finds the proper words to describe his feeling up to the point of “I --- love you” that derails his inspiration, is in fact the result of the disease that he is going to develop in the second act.

His renewed inspiration derails after a short while. This renewed inspiration is caused by the vision of Tadzio that his developing sickness derails into something he will then reject because of its sensual nature he cannot accept. His sickness, creeping death in Venice and swelling death in him make him betray his own creative ideal. This is marvelously shown in the present DVD where there is absolutely no flesh shown, or molded by close-fitting clothing or bathing suits or trunks: where there is no teasing whatsoever on Tadzio’s side who is a lively, fit and even athletic though not muscular mid-teen who is having very athletic and acrobatic activities with other mid-teen boys his age; where there is a very systematic and progressive evolution in Gustav von Aschenbach’s behavior revealing the progress of the disease right to death itself on the stage. The disease, and death, makes him nostalgic about youth, his youth, and makes him desire to have that vision of Tadzio, that boy himself as the psychopomp he needs to die, to cross the Styx, this time really and not in a gondola driven by the gondolier, Charon himself, who is part of the multiple character, the way he said when arriving for the first time to the hotel.

And yet he comes to a very selfish and self-centered position when he finally knows some epidemic is going around in Venice and he expresses 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 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 Hades, 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, even if he never knows what it is really.

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, rather in the twink bracket, 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 the suite’s 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, and pulls his tongue at them at the end; 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, the lover and mother 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 Gustav von Aschenbach’s dream defeats Apollo who walks away 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 of any sort 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 Gustav von Aschenbach’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 are 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.

The music is in itself a marvelous experience. I do not want to give all the original points it contains. It is entirely conceived and designed to set up the meaning of the opera. Every single moment, every single character and at times every single emotion or feeling, reflection or thought of Aschenbach’s are supported, emphasized and magnified by the music. I will only give some examples.

The fact that there is no overture transforms the first scene into the most meaningful element of the opera. It is the archetype of the whole architecture with the two main singers of the opera, one character, Gustav von Aschenbach, here impersonated by John Graham-Hall, and the singer Andrew Shore impersonating seven characters. In fact all along it is going to be a duel, a fencing confrontation between the two singers and the seven characters of the second singer are of course one mega-character: the archetypical psychopomp who will deliver Gustav von Aschenbach to death when the eighth impersonation of this mega-character who does not sing nor speak in the opera, viz. Tadzio, gives the signal of death Gustav von Aschenbach needs to finally pass over.

This English National Opera adaptation makes the signal a lot less obvious, if there is a signal of any form. Gustav von Aschenbach on the beach tries to get up but collapses into the sand when Tadzio is left for “dead” on the beach, face in the sand. Then he crawls when Tadzio who had been severely beaten by a teenage friend of his moves after the third call “Tadziu” from the chorus (there will be a fourth one from the chorus and the final word of Gustav von Aschenbach is “Tadzio,” fifth instance of this pentacle, and is it the pentagram some see in Dionysus?). Gustav von Aschenbach will manage to crawl back to his deckchair and climb into it and collapse, breathing heavily while Tadzio is walking away into the sea to the blaring and blinding sun and does not seem to look back. Gustav von Aschenbach will finally die in his deckchair and Tadzio will go on walking to the sun that turns brown slowly and then fades out to black. There it is clearly different from the libretto (if the video does not betray the scene) that says Tadzio gives the signal of death. In fact this way of showing it emphasizes the fact that Tadzio has finally grown out of his childish smile (just the same way as he did not laugh during the comedian’s act at the hotel one or two nights before), out of his childish vanity and even curiosity and is finally able to leave the dead man behind and walk to his own future life. And Gustav von Aschenbach climbing back in his deckchair to die seems to accept this fact since Tadzio’s job is finished, well done since Gustav von Aschenbach is dying and is finally dead. Charon can disappear: he is no longer needed.

This introductory scene gives to the overture at the beginning of the second scene, the passage to Venice on the ship the most dramatic value with the mega-character tempting, teasing Gustav von Aschenbach into his destiny which is to die, and he even predicts how he will die, when he will die, when his “pretty little darling” decides. In fact this meta-character is Dionysus himself who is only supposed to be a voice in the opera. Dionysus calls for real life, real love, real passion, that is to say physically and hormonally fulfilled love, passion, life, in the form of a dance to celebrate the sacrifice offered to the God of mysteries, and this sacrifice is always human, though it is no longer performed as such by any priest, except in the symbolical Eucharist, but is a self-sacrifice in which a mortal offers himself to this God of mysteries when time has come to die. Death is no longer a plague, the way it is described in Venice, but it is a self-offering to the God of mysteries. We are here at the root of death as liberation.

But to enjoy that passing over you need a psychopomp and that is the meta-character, that is Tadzio, the meta-character’s silent impersonation. When we reach the last wordless scene, or nearly wordless, a vague chorus in the far distance calling the name of Tadzio four times, and a final exhaling breath on Gustav von Aschenbach’s side in the shape of Tadzio’s name and, so say the stage directions, “at a clear beckon from Tadzio,” Gustav von “Aschenbach slumps in his chair.” And the psychopomp is not needed any more, thus “Tadzio continues his walk far out to sea.” You can see the difference with this production.

Every intervention of this psychopomp Dionysus, in any impersonation he takes, is marked by the music in an original way.

When Gustav von Aschenbach reflects on life, arts, death, love or whatever other mental subject he sings a cappella with only some piano notes now and then to punctuate his thinking. When he goes to the beach the music becomes luminous and Tadzio is introduced by what I think is a metallophone or xylophone: clear, metallic notes in light succession. Very beautiful and happy, sky deep but with no mystery, no secret, just attraction and appeal, but the appeal of beauty, though as Gustav von Aschenbach says “this beauty. . . Discovered through the senses And senses lead to passion . . . And passion to the abyss.” And this abyss is Dionysus message: “. . . taste the sacrifice. Join the worshippers, embrace, laugh, cry, to honour the god.” Note the trinity of “embrace, laugh, cry.” There are many other instances of such trinities of words like the second and last instance of eating strawberries that are declared “soft, musty, over-ripe,” which makes them the symbolic hemlock Gustav von Aschenbach who thinks he is Sicrates at that moment shortly before his final demise, will die of. And Gustav von Aschenbach turns Dionysus’ sacrifice around in his mind and it becomes “O the taste of knowledge.” And remember Apollo’s trinity of “beauty, reason, form” that echoed Gustav von Aschenbach’s “simplicity, beauty, form.” And Gustav von Aschenbach’s “so be it” of the first scene in which he accepts to go south as the psychopomp traveler tells him to do, will be echoed by the “so be it, so be it” on his return to the hotel, to Tadzio, after his failed moving out. It will then continue into the “Ite, missa est” of the priest in Saint Mark’s, accompanied by tolling bells (and that is not the only time: we had those tolling bells in the overture to Venice. And this resignation will become his acceptation of Dionysus’ decision about his sacrifice: “Let the gods do what they will with me.” And just an instant later: “Do what you will with me.” One repeated twice make three, amplified once, make four and amplified again two more times makes six, the number of Solomon, of perfect wisdom, of the completion of a cycle, of a life well fulfilled.

That strong sense of resignation is entirely contained in the last remark of the Hotel manager: “We must all lose What we think to enjoy the most.” And the music shifts to flutes and the beach and Tadzio and Tadzio’s fight with Jaschiu and his message it is time to move out since he Tadzio is no longer a boy because he has been defeated and nearly choked to death, his face held down in the sand: he has become a man and as such cannot be adulated as pure beauty by Gustav von Aschenbach any more. The light aerial surreal and outlandish music of the end carries the two out and brings us to a concluding vision of our own passage to the other side of the Styx river, ferried over by Charon in his boat. There is there in this production a perfect unifying feeling that we, the audience, are transported to both the future and death by this teenager who has just come of age in life to some sunny future.

We could take every scene and show how the music transcends the simple situations and gives them a new dimension, a new greatness, at times when it is satirical grandiosity, even grandiloquent greatness. And I must this production, with John Graham-Hall and the other singers, is clear and luminous. We can follow the words that are being sung because the articulation is careful and targets understanding, which is often rare on the opera stage. Opera English has a tendency to become a foreign Himalayan language when sung by some opera singers or even opera companies. Some conductors probably require that kind of articulation that mashes up the language. And that may happen even with this opera. For example the Glyndebourne production does not even have today standard English subtitles for those who have some hearing problem, thus amplifying the difficult slightly mashed up pronunciation. And this production corresponds as for this clarity to the original recording with Peter Pears under the guidance of Benjamin Britten himself.

To conclude I think it would be a good thing for anyone who wants to penetrate this opera to start with this production faithful to Benjamin Britten before moving to others and particularly those, if you can find them on DVD, that visualize the flesh and body of Tadzio who can appear in one of them only wearing a string bathing “suit.”


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