Death in Venice in Venice. No Kidding.

11/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When even the Germans say the people of Hamburg are cold and distant, you have to pay attention. Last night at the Teatro del Fenice was the Venice debut of choreographer John Neumeier's Tod in Venedig, a ballet performed by the Hamburg Ballett, based, they dared to say, on Thomas Mann's classic novel. I have been happily up to my eyeballs in Thomas Mann's bone-searing work of art, where an aging writer (I try not to identify) goes to this fabled city, and falls in love with a boy, who represents what every great philosopher from Plato on up (or down) thinks is the Ideal, becoming the incarnation of Art and Beauty, and the artist's struggle to become one with that art.

Instead, the choreographer John Neumeier, who I am embarrassed to say hails from Milwaukee, has taken this beautiful and wrenching tale, made crystal by Visconti in the magnificent film starring Dirk Bogarde, in which the director transmuted Mann's writer into a composer, music being more visual and theatrical than writing, and made his non-hero a pouting ballet master, forever throwing things to show his displeasure. Would I could have thrown something back.

When he goes to Venice in Act II, for which I reluctantly returned to see if it got any better--and the theater, all gilded, six-tiered and chandeliered, is certainly worth the price of admission, high as the Euro is right now--he is taken in a (surprise!) gondola to the hotel, where he sees Tadzio, who makes his first entrance in a bathing suit throwing a beach ball through a formally gowned and waltzing crowd, so we know he is a boy, and not, as seems, a very hot, muscular homosexual man. Before I forget, in the first act there was a duo of guys in very dark shades like the replicated villains in The Matrix, whose function, if they had one, escapes me. Anyway, bodies are dragged across stage in sheets into which ballerinas fall so we know there is an epidemic, Tadzio and the ballet master do a few erotic ballet turns, and then the hero(alleged) dies.

I yield to no one in my admiration for Thomas Mann, and I wish he could have lived forever as his words will. But I was glad he could not be there last night.

P.S. Best thing about the evening: the presence of firemen throughout the theater. Fenice means phoenix, which this theater actually is, having risen several times over the centuries from its own ashes after burning down, the last time an act of arson by embittered electricians who wanted shorter hours, but now have long ones in jail. I would assume the firemen were there as a precaution in case anyone wanted to take the evening out on the theater.

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