Torsten Rasch's New Opera 'The Duchess of Malfi'

Torsten Rasch's New Opera 'The Duchess of Malfi'
Opera by Torsten Rasch
Based on the play by John Webster
Libretto by Ian Burton
Pic: Stephen Cummiskey, 2010

This is a new audience and public for opera – young, curious, and willing to embrace the unexpected. Alternative theatre company Punchdrunk has a network of underground supporters.  Only hours after tickets became available for their latest production, The Duchess of Malfi was sold out and the website crashed!
The collaboration of Punchdrunk with English National Opera was a first – and a challenging one:  how to combine the essentially linear character of music with the immersive ‘in and out’ way of presenting drama and dance which has become Punchdrunk’s hallmark. The outcome was certainly controversial but when the 300 or so spectators were finally herded together into the vast hall to witness the finale, there was no doubting the tension, drama, excitement and overwhelming appreciation for this production. Torsten Rasch’s dark and rich music perfectly reflected the tortured drama…


'Fantastic in the literal sense: if there were ever a candidate for a six-star review, this would surely be it.
Sold out within six hours, The Duchess of Malfi – co-produced by site-specific company Punchdrunk Theatre and the ENO – is a gargantuan riposte to the traditional opera scene. Sight, sounds and smell combine to staggering effect as spectators wander through an office building, choosing which characters to follow.  Their reward is a scenic tour, peppered with such hallucinogenic highlights as a forest of wire trees and naked figures in the dark.  The lack of linearity heightens the atmosphere of John Webster’s macabre play.  Meanwhile, Torsten Rasch’s opulent score, redolent of the composer’s idol, Alban Berg, ekes out the tension, particularly in the grand finale.  It is impressively handled by contralto Claudia Huckle, counter-tenor Andrew Watts and the orchestra of the ENO.  Fantastic in the literal sense: if there were ever a candidate for a six-star review, this would surely be it.'
Time Out 22-28 July 2010
'Punchdrunk’s previous shows have taken traditional theatrical tales - Faust, Macbeth - and told them throughout whole, beautifully dressed buildings: mammoth  works of theatre design that you love to explore.
Add opera to the equation and you have The Duchess of Malfi, based on our own Jack Webster, with music by Torsten Rasch.   Tramping up to an abandoned facility in the  Royal Albert Docks, you don a mast, continue to plod over concrete floors under gorgeous spooky lights, then turn a corner and find  bright rooms, musicians and singers mid-flow. Such moments can be electrifying. Stumbling into the middle of a string band, I was briefly entranced by a weave of melody.  I wheeled around to see Claudia Huckle’s mellifluously voiced yet vulnerable Duchess coaxing her steward to bed.'
London Evening Standard  14 July 2010
'…but suddenly there was music and dancing and a cardinal.  And then I was in a kind of church with pews and groups of mellifluous woodwinds accompanying singing characters I could not identify and words I could not make out.  In another room a beautiful threnody for strings was deeply redolent of Alban Berg, the composer Torsten Rasch’s self-confessed idol.  As anyone who knows his thrilling orchestral song-cycle Mein herz brennt will know, this man writes most beautifully for both voice and orchestra.  …
Punchdrunk’s priorities are to refract the drama and place greater emphasis on the dark and suffocating atmosphere of Webster’s nihilistic play.  And if ENO’s part in all of this occasionally seemed incidental to overall effect, the final scene (where we do all arrive together) was jaw-droppingly operatic.'
The Independent 14 July 2010
'… Torsten Rasch’s score is at one with the environment: the collision of worlds old and new, the fractured narrative, the haphazard whole.  His style seems predictable at first – Berg-inflected modern music of the old school – but its true colours emerge layer by layer, shards from an aural prism, culminating in an orchestral climax of depth and opulence during director’s Felix Barrett’s grand finale, whose ultimate flourish ‘twould be a sin to disclose.' 14 July 2010
'Rasch, best known for his song-cycle Mein Herz brennt, based on the work of the German industrial metal band Rammstein, supplies a wide-ranging and highly atmospheric score that uses spare modernist gestures as well as some recycled late-Romanticisim. It’s an integral part of a show that employs familiar operatic devices to underscore a vivid and regularly unnerving experience.'
The Stage 14 July 2010

'The final scene was, at least, of those that I saw, by far the most effective dramatically and musically. This was partly because of the glorious Wagnerian textures emerging in the vocal and orchestral writing, partly because the length of the scene and the fact that one heard it from start to finish allowed time to absorb more of the musical qualities, and partly because of simply being close to the wonderful, rich, vibrant singing of Richard Burkhard and Claudia Huckle in the heart-wrenching ending, where she accepts her death with dignity and earns the assassin’s respect.'