Alan Bennett‘s latest National Theatre play The Habit of Art spurred more interest in an opera that is already firmly in the operatic canon, Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice. The play was simulcast in movie theatres across the world earlier this year and if you missed it you ought to get a DVD when it becomes available. It brings together W H Auden and Benjamin Britten for a tension-filled chat about the opera Britten’s working on, based on the novella by Thomas Mann and involving a man obsessed by a boy. The encounter is imaginary — it seems that Britten never considered Auden as a potential librettist for the Death — but the history between the two men in the play isn’t.
There is plenty in the play for the lovers of Britten’s music. The strategically placed audio excerpts from Peter Grimes and his other works are an important part of the play, but there’s also a lot of lively give and take between the two about Britten’s way of working, his place in the western music canon, his de facto husband Peter Pears (who, as we hear more than once with a tone of foreboding, is at the moment far away, “in Toronto”) and his coping with his inner censor. “Death in Venice! Imagine what Strauss would do with that,” says Auden/Fitz wistfully on one occasion. “Yes, sea is your thing, isn’t it,” it occurs to him how to classify Britten on another. In one particularly heated exchange, he urges Britten to drop the mythological mystification, Apollos and Dionysuses and all the high brow obfuscation about lost innocence when it’s really all about boys to begin with. He urges Britten to admit to himself that it is all about boys, and that that is just as good.
Worth reading is Alan Bennett’s own account on why he wrote the play, what sources he used and why he believes himself to be closer to Britten, and even the visiting rent boy, rather than Auden. UK’s National Theatre also posted a short clip from the documentary about the two lives and the play, which contains many gems. (If you go here and click on Alan Bennett Short Film, you’ll get there. NT is keeping its clips close to its Flash chest.)
The Canadian Opera Company is putting on Death in Venice in mid-October this year, with Alan Oke as Gustav von Aschenbach. Oke already performed in the role in many productions to acclaim (“Ever since Peter Pears and Anthony Rolfe Johnson…” and so on). There is a photo gallery on the COC site of a Opera Lyon production with Oke, but in thumbnail size. The audio files — yes, those still exist on some websites,
and COC has yet to discover YouTube — are from an earlier Death conducted by Steuart Bedford, with the English Chamber Orchestra, Members of The English Opera Group and Peter Pears as Aschenbach. Bedford will conduct the upcoming COC production.
Meanwhile, here’s a reportage from the recent gorgeous Staatsoper Hamburg staging: