John Piper's sets for Benjamin Britten's last opera Death in Venice represent the summit of his career as a designer for the theatre and of his long association with the English Opera Group of which he had been a co-founder. First performed at Aldeburgh in June 1973, the composer was by then too unwell to conduct the piece himself. The Piper family's association with the work is a strong one, with the artist's wife Myfanwy writing the opera's English libretto. For her too it was a culmination of a series of highly successful collaborations with Britten as his favoured librettist.
Britten's setting of Thomas Mann's novella is one the composer's sparsest scores, strongly reflected in Piper's memorable sets, including the dark canalscapes and empty, receding beach, the subject of the present watercolour. This design would become the fitting background for the work's protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach, as he admires the captivating beauty of the boy Tadzio, before finally falling victim to a deadly plague at the end of the opera.
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