tue 15/10/2019

The Duchess of Malfi, ENO, Punchdrunk | reviews, news & interviews

The Duchess of Malfi, ENO, Punchdrunk

The Duchess of Malfi, ENO, Punchdrunk

An unmissable new show but a mess of an opera

One of the stars of the show: Felix Barrett's designsPhoto Credit: Stephen Cummiskey

It's tough being a critic. There I was last night at Punchdrunk's first operatic foray, The Duchess of Malfi - put on in collaboration with the English National Opera - trying to make sense of a typically Punchdrunkian world that had been shattered across three never-ending floors of disused office space in the back of beyond, attempting to maintain objectivity, coolness, clarity, soberly parsing the multifarious activity, diligently attending the sporadic music-making, scribbling it all down nerdily in my notepad, when a dishy young performer nobbles me, drags me into a darkened room, locks the door, pins me to the wall and gives me one of the most intimate non-sexual encounters of my life. Needless to say, I had fun.

Which was a nice change. Because up to that point - about an hour in - it hadn't been that fun at all. For sure, for this Punchdrunk virgin, it was impossible not to be intrigued by the Punchdrunk system: the compulsory long-nosed masks for the audience that did so much to heighten the drama and alienate us from each other, the narrative revelations in the fabric of the rooms and the intermingling of the actors and musicians and us. But it was impossible not to be baffled too. If you like to understand things, follow things, learn from your dramatic experiences, then this narrative soup, devoid of any form of elucidation (or surtitles), will not wash.

But accept Punchdrunk as mess-makers, accept them as precocious children sitting in their high chairs, shredding and hurling and scattering dramatic narrative in any and every direction, shattering linearity and intelligibility, littering dramatic fragments across vast deserted urban wildernesses, while demanding viewers give literal chase to the scraps, and enjoyment - of a somewhat cheap kind, the sort you might get from a murder mystery weekend - will come. You might not learn much from your time with Punchdrunk but you almost certainly will feel things. The Punchdrunk experience is a visceral one, a sensual one. Your sense of smell, touch, sight and hearing is on constant watch - far more than your intellect. And you may even get nobbled.

This is more than enough for a lot of initial intrigue and goodwill, which soon turns to frustration as one hunts around for some action, opera, singing, acting, and tries to get away from the brooding ambient stock horror sound that pervades much of the building, then finds oneself staring at unaccompanied music stands and spending more time chasing musicians (I followed a bassoonist into the toilets by mistake) than hearing them play.

The Punchdrunk experience is a resolutely (deliberately almost) hit-and-miss experience. Punchdrunk offers you a world and you must assemble it - for better or worse. Choose a different path through this bizarre maze of rooms and floors - as I did after my little encounter - and the music started to flow and the experience began to take on some value. Rather lame but spooky and kooky design ideas - candles, stuffed animals, medical bottles, prams, crosses, sub-Joseph Cornell-like arrangements - were replaced by more genuinely chilling events, the beating of a naked man over a heap of old TVs or an aria conducted in pitch black, the audience stumbling over each other like blind wretches. Indeed, the last hour was full of excitement - stay to the end whatever you do.

But The Duchess of Malfi must also be judged as opera. And as opera, it resolutely failed. The aleatoric nature to proceedings works least well with the musical element. The contemporary musical language that composer Torsten Rasch composes in would be tricky to follow in concert. Left to us to assemble, the music makes little overarching sense at all, except in the final 20-minute passage, where, all corralled into the biggest room of the evening, we hear a work from beginning to end.

Yet, despite all these reservations, despite the lack of intelligibility, despite the mild pretentiousness, despite the fashiony qualities to some of the staging, despite the unashamed pilfering of 40 years of installation art, I still get the feeling that Punchdrunk have struck some sort of gold with this event. The Duchess of Malfi is a mess, but a wonderfully rich mess, intricate, detailed, meticulously planned, beautiful at times, thrilling at times, cheap - mining sex and religion for its grandest statements - but also glorious, excessive and gaudy. It is also by far the hippest opera or classical music has ever got. The art forms must learn from it. But in the right way. For The Duchess of Malfi is an unmissable production, but it is also an operatic mess.

Comments

Going on friday. I come from the punchdrunk camp, and have been worried that it might be a bit to much opera for my liking. Sounds like I don't have to worry to much about that :) Is it impossible to miss all the action. I am worried that I may walk into the office on Friday and walk around for a few hours and miss everything? I am worried about knowing what where I am ment to be...I always like promenade, don't feel like your missing anything.

terrific review. I had a different experience, but came to pretty much the same conclusion (opera? what opera?). A load of hooey, but a lot of fun.

There is a rumor to follow the conductor...is this a plan?

There are two conductors unfortunately, so that won't work. I'd say stick to the second floor. That has all the best design concepts and staging ideas. After about an hour, the herding starts anyway and the path of greatest interest becomes clearer and clearer.

Head upstairs as soon as you get in and you get plenty of opera - I heard lots. Follow characters, particularly the Duchess, or her brothers. Or as the review suggested follow the musicians en masse

This is an awesome review. I wasn't quick enough to get Malfi tickets, but I love Punchdrunk precisely for their messiness, and the difference between each person's experience. Nice to read a review that understands this isn't necessarily a flaw, or some failure of storytelling.

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