Torsten Rasch: New Opera Co-produced by ENO and Punchdrunk

Torsten Rasch: New Opera Co-produced by ENO and Punchdrunk

Stirring up immense interest, Torsten Rasch’s new operatic version of The Duchess of Malfi, with an adaptation by Ian Burton, will be co-produced by ENO and the avant-garde theatre company Punchdrunk for the world premiere this summer. 

Charlotte Higgins from The Guardian writes about the background to the opera:

‘It is a case of the UK's most talked about experimental theatre group joining forces with one of its mightiest opera companies – and the results could be spectacular.

English National Opera is to create a version of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi with Punchdrunk, the company that has made waves with its habit of flinging the audience in among its performers, and creating work in atmospheric, abandoned buildings.

The composer of the operatic version of the blood-soaked, incest-filled Jacobean tragedy is the German Torsten Rasch. He has intrigued audiences at the Royal Festival Hall in London with his spectacular orchestral song cycle Mein Herz Brennt, set to lyrics by the German industrial metal band Rammstein.

Although theatre audiences in Britain have become increasingly used to leaving behind the traditional proscenium-arch auditorium to follow a drama on foot in a site-specific location, it will be quite a new experience for those used to the plush environment of ENO's home, the London Coliseum.

It will also be Punchdrunk's most elaborate and ambitious show to date... never before has the company had the challenge of working with a 70-strong full orchestra and a cast of opera singers.

The piece will be performed in July over three floors of a 7,400 sq metre (80,000 sq ft) office block in Royal Albert Basin, east London.
The audience, who will be allowed into the building in small groups, will roam freely through the space, free to follow different characters and strands of the story as they unfold simultaneously.

The musicians will be scattered through the building, sometimes playing in a 30-strong chamber group, or sometimes, according to Punchdrunk artistic director Felix Barrett, one might come across a "lone oboist in the outer reaches of the building".

There will be 17 singers – and the audience of up to 400 will be able to encounter them as close-up as they like, rather than being separated by the traditional operatic orchestra pit. "We will be putting the audience in the middle of the opera rather than in the stalls," said Barrett.

As the drama unfolds, the audience, the full orchestra and all the performers will come together for the dramatic, bloody climax of the piece.

According to Barrett, the move to opera is natural: "We are always inspired by music," he said. "We can never imagine a piece unless we know what the score is. To scale up to working with an orchestra has been our dream for ages."..."We always try to achieve the operatic in our work," he said. "Opera is all about big sweeping visual statements and raw emotion."

They chose Webster's tragedy, he said, "because it is so lusciously epic, so rich in its imagery and with such a ludicrously tragic ending". The libretto will be adapted from the play by Ian Burton.

John Berry, the artistic director of English National Opera, said: "Working with Punchdrunk we have a wonderful potential for opening ourselves to a new public that might not normally come to opera. Few people would argue that Barrett is one of the biggest talents in theatre."

The choice of composer came from Barrett. "We listened to the work of about 30 composers," he said. "As soon as we heard Mein Herz Brennt we knew Torsten Rasch was the one. The piece is epic, it's so operatic in its theatricality. He has completely embraced the deconstruction of the orchestra and our dispensing with linear narrative. He's grabbed the idea with everything he has."

Rasch already has one opera under his belt: Rotter, which was premiered in 2008 by Oper Köln.

The Duchess of Malfi, written in 1612-13, involves the duchess marrying beneath her station; it ends in an elaborate bloodbath as her brothers exact their revenge and meet their own deaths in the process. There will be 13 performances of the opera from 13 July.’
Guardian (Charlotte Higgins), 31 March 2010 
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