'I think therefore I am.'  Descartes            'I AM THAT I AM.'  Exodus.3.        'I am what I am.'  La Cage aux Folles

14 November 2010

Death in Venice

The Film - The Book - The Opera - The Ballet - The City - The Legend

Novel                  by Thomas Mann (one of my favourite writers)
Film                    by Lucino Visconti, Duca di Mondrone (one of my favourite directors)
Film                    starred Dirk Bogarde (one of the most talented and expressive actors on screen) 
Music                  film music by Gustav Mahler (one of my favourite composers)
Opera                 by Benjamin Britten (my favourite twentieth century opera composer)
Opera Film         Robert Gard starred as Aschenbach (a great singer whom I once took out drinking)
Location             Venice (my favourite city)  
                 "...the head was poised like a flower, in incomparable loveliness. It was the head of Eros, with the yellowish bloom of Parian marble, with fine brows, and dusky clustering ringlets standing out in soft plenteousness over temples and ears."

I have collected the book, the film, the sound track, the opera recording, the film of the opera, photographs, posters, picks of me in the spots where it was filmed and even a shell  from the beach in front of the Grand Hotel de Bains on the Lido.  There is also a Ballet by the Sydney Dance Company.  Some say this is obsessive of me. Of course it is, but hardly dangerous,  Go get copies yourself -  and do go to Venice    It is well worth it, as any romantic will tell you.
Just why am I so intrigued with one particular story? I do know that the influence of the interpretations of so many of the great artists of the world has each had their impact on my opinions.  I certainly respect what the truly talented have to say, or more precisely, the interpretations of those that I believe are blessed by the muse.
    Many people see this story as that of an old man obsessed with a beautiful youth. I do agree that the boy in the book and the film is truly beautiful, but I suspect that although the inspiration had been a youth he had seen in Venice, perhaps Thomas Mann selected a male character for his novella because at the time it would have had less sexual overtones than if he had chosen a girl for the pivot of Aschenbach's spiral into desolation, abandon, decay and ultimately death. There are also allusions to the Greeks (Platonic) as are bought out even more strongly in Britten's opera of the novella. The one possible exception is the Visconti scene where a more youthful Aschenbach visits a prostitute, a vision sparked by the Beethoven piano piece that in the film both Tadzio and the prostitute are playing. Is this a memory or a pondering by the composer as to his true attitude to the boy. The story for me is of art, beauty and creativity. Although Mann had had several attractions to handsome youths himself and would continue to do so, he would not have been aware that in the late twentieth century the sexuality of others, would become the fashionable interest of  mass media, bigots and those concerned only with the doings of their neighbours. You know, 'the beam in thine own eye' and all that.

         Style and elegance are no longer as fashionable as they once were, and the day of the 'common' man has certainly arrived. An odd statement perhaps for the democratically minded, but I still hearken back to the Greeks and that great document on Conduct and Love 'Aristotle's Ethics'. True equality and love exists between those who have spent time educating their conscience and their opinions. Formality of education does not do this, but the true dedication of any individual's mind to constantly search for the truth. Why do I mention this? Perhaps this is the underlying dilemma of this story. A life of thoughtful elegance, challenged, undermined and destroyed by the inexplicable simplicity of spontaneous beauty in one direction, the superficial happiness of others in another and the expectations thrust upon anyone who listens to and is influenced by, the ill-informed, self-interested  utterances from their surroundings.
  Now that we have mentioned Beauty again, I believe that this is the central theme of the story. It is summed up in one conversation, when Aschenbach ponders the validity of an artist sweating and labouring in personal perfection to create beauty, when it is so easily challenged by what God or Nature can produce as if by accident. It is so hard to sustain our fragile self-image and worth when weakness of body or mind sap our strength  just to survive and what about our ability for building mirrored walls. The aim of all creation seems to be a struggle towards improvement and eventual perfection. Natural selection is guided by ability and preference and survival of the fittest may relate to the healthy and the strong but also the intelligent and the appealing. Thus beauty is an element of the aim. Creativity of man mirrors the creativity of the Divine. One wants to make what is good, but sometimes what appears good springs forth of its own accord. Which is true? Perhaps Mann (man) wanted to define what can not be known and the stress of that was his (Aschenbach's) downfall. There is a time to ponder, but as life is the aim one should not forget a time to just live and accept.

From a book on 'Great Romantic Films' that I purchased in 1974 Lawrence J Quirk wrote- 

"Some shots of Bjorn Andresen, the Tadzio of the film, could be extracted from the frame and hung on the walls of the Louvre or the Vatican in Rome. For this is not a pretty youngster who is supposed to represent an object of perverted lust; that was neither novelist Mann's nor director-screen writer Visconti's intention. Rather, this is a symbol of a beauty allied to those which inspired Michelangelo's David and Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, and which moved Dante to seek ultimate aesthetic catharsis in the distant figure of Beatrice."

However :- 'Being immortalised as a beautiful boy was not a blessing to Bjorn Andresen, but a curse. "I felt like an exotic animal in a cage," he says. And because it happened so early in his life, it distorted all his experience for years afterwards.' from a recent interview. A sad statement from someone who has, perhaps inadvertently, contributed to and helped spark thoughts of beauty and art in many who have read the book , seen the film or listened to the opera. It is now a fact and could be a joy, but it appears not to be so.

Benjamin Britten's Opera of  'Death in Venice'

2005, and at last I attended a live performance of Death in Venice. Philip Langridge sang and acted Gustav von Aschenbach astonishingly. The night was conducted with detail by Richard Hickox who has brought years of growing understanding. The precision of the use of percussion and gamelan sounds sang like crystal exclamations. As a, of necessity, 16 year old newcomer the depth of the role of Tadzio by the young dancer Benjamin (Ben) Nichols was an inspiration. He knew the character he played and not a moment was lost in expression. A dancer who truly understood and acted his part in this drama. At Ashenbach's climatic howl of  'I---- Love You' which ends Act 1 I burst into tears at the beauty and awesome intelligence of this Britten masterpiece. Multiple scene changes and austere sets were so apt to spotlight the actors to carry along what is essentially a discussion on creativity beauty and corruption, directed by Jim Sharman who bought such strong and inspired insight to the event. I cheered along with a wildly excited audience.

Come, see where Hyacinthus plays
Basking in Apollo's Rays.
Careless sun that gilds his love
With beauty that will fatal prove.
But a rival watches there
With envious pangs too strong to bear.
Jealous Zephyr's angry breath
Guides the blow that brings his death.
Poor broken boy as on the ground you rest
The curled flower springs
immortal from your breast

It is now many years since I attended the premiere of the film here in Brisbane, which had the full treatment including champagne and guests from the Italian Consulate. It was then that it became my favourite movie and as I watch it now some 40 years later it remains to me the most beautiful film ever made, a true discussion of the elements and affects of creation and beauty. I am lucky to have also seen one Opera and one Ballet evoking the themes created by Thomas Mann.
If you are wondering, there are 1760 clips on Youtube related to Death in Venice in its various manifestations. Here are two excerpts of Opera versions of the story.

Check out the Thomas Mann Page to see the real Tadzio 'Wladyslaw Moes' (claimed by Moes) whom Thomas Mann saw in Venice in 1911 and gave the inspiration for Death in Venice. Also my page on Benjamin Britten

Venice was founded around 452 when people took refuge there to escape Atilla the Hun after he attacked  the city of Aquileia. Tribunes represented each of the 12 major islands which was independent but part of the Eastern Roman Empire. In 697  Venice became a republic under an elected doge. In 1063 the present basilica of St. Mark's was begun (consecrated in 1094) to house the remains of Saint Mark the Evangelist brought to Venice from Alexandria in Egypt in 828 and housed in two previous churches on the sight which one built in 832 which was destroyed, replaced and destroyed again in 976. After the Saracens signed a treaty with Venice allowing trade and Venice became the link between the East and Europe, and became a rich and powerful centre for trade. After the split of the Byzantine Empire in 1204, Venice became the greatest European power in the Mediterranean area, politically. Bt the 13th century, it became a oligarchy- ruled by the Viscontis. In the 13th and14th century, the republics of Amalfi and Pisa were defeated then Genoa and Venice became the leading maritime power. Following the Turkish invasions in the middle of the15th century, Venice began to decline. The discovery of alternate trade routes around the Cape of Good Hope further weakened their power. In 1508, the Pope , France and Spain, united against Venice to divide the riches among themselves. The Venetian Republic ended in 1797 after it fell to Napoleon Bonaparte and came under Austrian rule but power went back and forth until it became part of the new Italian kingdom in 1866.
As the setting for 'Death in Venice' the Art Nouveau Hotel Des Bains has become a site of pilgrimage for many a tourist. It opened on the 5th of July 1900 as the Lido became a high class bathing resort. The Des Bains was a tranquill retreat for intellectuals, aristocrats and Slavic upper middle class families with their children.  It became the first Lido hotel to have its own beach bordered by two rows of changing huts and cabins. In 1926 a tunnel was constructed from the beach to the hotel. In 1911 Thomas Mann, a frequent visitor to Venice noted down his state of mind having been attracted by the beauty of an angel faced adolescent he encountered in 'the most incredible of all cities. The following year 1912 'Death in Venice' was published. Mann returned to the Des Bains again in 1925 and 1934. Although planning another trip he never made it. Over the last century it has been partially destroyed by fire 1916, a destructive scirocco 1966 and remodelled and extended several times. In 1970 Luciano Visconti redecorated much with original artefacts and filmed 'Death in Venice' in the hotel and on the adjacent beach. In 1997 the hotel was once again used for filming the multi Ocsar award winning 'The English Patient', replacing the Cairo Shepherds Hotel which had been destroyed.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...