John Neumeier b. 1939
Death in Venice (2003)
Duration: 50 minutes

John Neumeier‘s free adaptation of Thomas Mann‘s novella “Death in Venice” for the marvellous dancers of the Hamburg Ballett walks a fine line between astute theatricality and melodrama, between brilliant passages of movement and banal gestures. The primary message is that the life of an artist - even a famous, successful one - can be hell unless he‘s in creative touch with his inner child, his emotions.

Johann Sebastian Bach, Richard Wagner
Festspielhaus Baden-Baden
Soloists: Elizabeth Cooper (piano)
Orchestra, Chorus: Hamburg Ballett
Director: Thomas Grimm
Choreographer: John Neumeier
Running Time: 123
Picture Format: 16:9
Disc Format: NTSC
Sound Format: PCM Stereo
Number of Discs: 1
Subtitle Languages: GB, DE, FR

R E V I E W:

A modern myth, as it were, Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice (Der Tod in Venedig, 1912)takes its inspiration from art. It also continues to stimulate adaptations in which the themes of the story to resonate in various ways. In addition to the references to classical myth, Mann himself acknowledged the physical description of his hero Gustav Aschenbach resembled the face of Gustav Mahler. This served to connect his story to a contemporary musician, albeit without biographical overtones. The story acquired new life as a film by Visconti (1971) and as an opera by Britten (1973). In transforming the story into ballet, choreographer John Neumeier uses movement for its execution. The result is a work which stands well on its own. It re-envisions the story and offers interpretations of the music Neumeier used in this new context.
As with his other ballets, notably the ones based on the music of Mahler, Neumeier chose significant works for the score. In Death in Venice Neumeier makes use of music by Bach and Wagner: Bach’s Musical Offering, BWV 1079; the Bourrée from Bach’s Suite for Lute, BWV 996; various excerpts from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, including the famous prelude to Act 1 and the third-act Liebestod; the “Bacchanale” from Tannhaüser) extracts from the Wesendonck-Lieder; and Webern’s orchestration of the six-voiced ricercar from Bach’s Musical Offering. The choices underscore the two aesthetic poles of Mann’s story. As Neumeier stated in the notes published with the DVD, “When I decided to translate the novella into dance, I knew from the beginning that I would use the music of Johann Sebastian Bach for the rational, intellectual, Apollonian world of strict order that characterizes Aschenbach’s creations. ...” For the contrasting Dionysian world, the logical choice was Wagner. Neumeier’s selections from nineteenth-century operas are appropriate to this version of Death in Venice.
Neumeier’s scenario hinges on the depiction of Gustav Aschenbach as an esteemed choreographer. He is neither the writer Mann described in his story (and in Britten’s libretto) nor the composer in Visconti’s film. The action is shifted to the eighteenth-century court of Frederick the Great. In the course of completing a ballet for the Prussian court, Aschenbach encourages a mysterious stranger, whose arrival prompts the choreographer to leave Germany. Aschenbach finds himself in Venice, where he encounters the Polish youth Tadzio and becomes infatuated with the boy. This inspires Dionysian dreams in Aschenbach’s psyche. As he wakes to real life in Venice, a cholera epidemic strikes the city. Instead of fleeing, Aschenbach stays. His unfinished ballet entitled “Frederick the Great” is his legacy after dying in Venice. This follows the outlines of Mann’s story, including the unfinished Frederick the Great. The history of the monarch in Mann’s novella becomes a ballet in Neumeier’s adaptation, a detail which suggests autobiographical elements.
Neumeier’s use of the famous novella as a point of departure sets the bar high for creating dance that translates the story effectively. Neumeier succeeds in meeting the challenge with his medium becoming an apt vehicle for retelling Mann’s story. In this regard the element of abstraction works well within the structure, so that it is possible to enter into the concept of communicating the narrative through dance. Thus, the choreography in the opening scene projects the textures and motion found in a fugue by Bach. This in turn suggests the kinds of abstract dances associated with the fictional protagonist (here portrayed convincingly by Lloyd Riggins). Neumeier’s own facility at choreography is evident in the contrastingly passionate dances that underscore Aschenbach’s fascination with Tadzio. He is, after all, responding to the music. The selection of pieces is another masterstroke which serves as the means to connect dance and narrative. The musical element stands apart from the way Visconti used the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony throughout the film Death in Venice. In the latter the recurrence of the same music in various contexts differs from the ways in which Neumeier juxtaposed different kinds of works in his ballet. Wisely he avoids the inclusion of any Mahler; no suggestion of any intertextual element between this new ballet and Visconti’s film. While Neumeier uses a number of pieces, the choreography allows them to cohere and this video usefully shows how this works. With stage direction as nimble as would occur with a play, the sense of timing found in this performance merits attention for the way it allows the entire structure to flow with easy eloquence.
As ballet, this conception of the story works well on various levels. The evocation of the eighteenth century milieu is readily found in the music. The use of selected props prevents the ballet from becoming a costume drama; the use of tricorn hats and period jackets is sufficient in this regard. Likewise, the mirroring that is part of the choreography throughout the ballet sets up the climactic scene between Aschenbach and Tadzio. This aspect of dance further connects the treatment of fugue in the first part of the ballet with the intimate scene at the end. At the same time, the element of music stands out in the treatment of the music and the visual reminders of scores. The use of Peters editions of Bach’s music as a prop not only presents the name of the composer unquestionably on the stage, but also suggest the kind of reverence for the score that parallels the way the book of scripture functions in a liturgical setting.
A modern work of art, Neumeier’s ballet merits attention for its convincing translation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice in dance. With a cast and production shaped by Neumeier, the video offers an authentic rendering of the 2004 ballet for future audiences to appreciate. It is moving for the way the story becomes vivid without a single word of dialogue. Neumeier’s Death in Venice demonstrates the choreographer’s mastery of the genre.
-- James L. Zychowicz, MusicWeb International