'The Duchess of Malfi'

The Punchdrunk company takes audiences on a walkabout, replacing narrative with sensory overload.

Is it opera? Is it drama? Is it theater as we know it? The sensation of the U.K. arts scene, the Punchdrunk company takes audiences on a walkabout, replacing narrative with sensory overload creating spinetingling events in abandoned buildings. Now they’re collaborating with English National Opera to offer an opera in dark, creepy rooms in a vast building. It’s already sold out. But for all the beauties of the production’s spooky design, the thought occurs: isn’t this just a posh Haunted House with a live band?

Kitted out in identical white masks to create anonymity, audiences are ushered in and then left to wander, everyone effectively makes up their own show depending on which spaces and scenes you discover.

On their previous runaway hit “Faust,” there were mysterious and dangerous scenes to chance upon and real invention in re-telling the story through iconic images of 1950s Americana. Here, once the novelty of “immersive opera” wears off — rather early in a three-hour piece — the ambiance begins to feel off the peg.

After some nondescript empty offices with medicinal bottles, paperwork and dead computer screens, more threatening spaces beckon, notably forests of fake trees starkly caught in lightbeams slicing through haze-filled darkness.

Actors-singers loom forth, moving determinedly though inexplicably. A naked countertenor is beaten. A woman gives birth on a garden swing. Sometimes characters are discovered singing, usually with chamber ensembles, always atonally.

Trying to figure out where these scenes fit within the narrative is to miss the point. However, it’s self-defeating for sung scenes to be scuppered by the composer. Torsten Rasch’s word-setting makes the vowels so overextended across cavernously wide interval leaps that it’s well-nigh impossible to make sense of a single line, let alone a scene. A diffuse staging of a work, set to diffuse music is seriously unengaging.

Finally gathered together, audiences are herded into a massive red-curtained room dominated by a high catwalk upon which the duchess is murdered. At last, everyone can actually see and, armed with a full orchestra, Rasch provides sub-Alban Berg, horror-soundtrack textures. The third-hand contemporary dance thrusts and contractions threaten to kill the atmosphere but there’s real excitement with a giant reveal of bodies in the closing seconds.

Yet if the strongest section is a traditionally staged, coherent opera scene, isn’t that a terrible admission of defeat? Elsewhere, the loudest sound is that of an ambitious work crashing between stools.

The Duchess of Malfi

Beckton, London; 350 seats; £35 top

Production

An English National Opera and Punchdrunk presentation of an opera in one act, music by Torsten Rasch, libretto by Iain Burton based on the play by John Webster. Directed by Felix Barrett. Conducted by Stephen Higgins.

Creative

Sets, Barrett; costumes, Tina Bicat; lighting, Euan Maybank; sound, Stephen Dobbie; choreography, Maxine Doyle. Opened, reviewed Jul. 13, 2010. Running time: 3 HOURS.

Cast

Duchess of Malfi - Claudia Huckle Ferdinand - Andrew Watts The Cardinal - Freddie Tong Bosola - Richard Burkhard Julia - Julia Sporsen Antonio - Geir Hytten Cariola - Sarah Dowling
With: Temitope Ajose-Cutting, Elizabeth Barker, Conor Doyle, Kath Duggan, Nathan Johnston, Hannes Langolf, Miranda Letten, Robert McNeill, Raquel Meseguer, Fernanda Prata, Vinicvius Salles, Jacob Smart, Rebecca Yates
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