The Duchess of Malfi
A provocative experimental opera staged in a vast East London warehouse proved intriguing, writes Helen Wallace
It wasn’t an experience I’ll easily forget. I was being pushed by nearly 300 people in white masks into a very dark room that seemed to be getting darker and smaller by the minute. I was finding it hard to breathe under my plastic mask: in the gloom I noticed broadcaster Mark Lawson had tilted his up in an attempt to find an exit (critic Paul Driver of the Sunday Times had long ago ripped his off and left the warehouse).
No one made a sound but there was a sense of rising panic. Suddenly I was roughly pushed aside as an ear-splitting countertenor voice broke into a frenzied aria inches from my ear. In the strobe lighting Andrew Watts was revealed, standing in front of me stark naked and covered in blood.
Now that, my friend, is immersive theatre. And that was probably one of the most effective moments in Torsten Rasch’s new opera of The Duchess of Malfi staged in a vast Beckton warehouse by English National Opera (ENO) and Punchdrunk.
It was a perfect distillation of the Duchess’s experience: trapped between two evil scheming brothers, her spying servant and the lover she is not permitted to marry, she is buried alive in a horrific labyrinth of intrigue, paranoia, fear, confusion. And so was I. Where were the doors? Where had everyone gone? Which direction was the music coming from? Why did some people seem able to go up in that lift but it never came for me? The sense of threat was palpable.
Punchdrunk specialises in multi-layered theatre where main plot and sub-plots can be played simultaneously and a promenading audience can ‘choose’ which scene to watch.
The fundamental flaw with this here was a) John Webster’s play has an urgent, linear narrative and you don’t want to miss any of it b) as an opera, Rasch had clearly written substantial music for important scenes, which, again were the ones you wanted to see, while ‘sub-plots’ might only have electro-acoustic ‘sounds’. It was a third of the way into the show before I realised that the only way to follow the story was to follow the conductor…
So, to the music itself: will we be hearing this piece again? I’d very much like to, and preferably all of it next time. Rasch, a former-East German composer who has spent time in Japan, has an ear for spellbinding textures and sonorities, and a musical imagination of extraordinary ingenuity.
He was at his best on a chamber opera scale, like the enchanting scene in the orchard of cable wire trees, magically lit, where harp and marimbas accompanied the mesmerising mezzo Claudia Huckle, who played the Duchess. In another memorable scene, members of the ENO orchestra sat on pews while trenchant trumpet and cello-heavy scoring drove forward the wicked Cardinal’s soliloquy.
No amount of clever orchestration could make up for the monotony of the vocal lines, though: sustained, melismatic and declamatory, they were beautifully sung but oddly unexpressive.
One longed for some variety of pace – some talk, some recitative. Director Felix Barrett may have freed opera from its cosy theatre and brought it up close and personal, but it felt like Rasch had trapped the singers into singing of an almost pre-Baroque formality. Weird.
Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine
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