At last - the opera-ization of the Globe Theatre's smash play, "The Duchess of Malfi"!
Published in 1623, and first produced perhaps some 10 years earlier, the John Webster play has been chiefly enjoyed in this century as the hit of Eng. Lit. classes in Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama Exclusive of Shakespeare. It is full of blood and sex.
That such passion and gore among the mighty was the very stuff for opera has, after three and a half centuries, struck two composers simultaneously. Tonight is the world premiere of Stephen Douglas Burton's "Duchess of Malfi" at Wolf Trap, while another new opera of the play, by British composer Stephen Oliver, will be done by the Santa Fe Opera.
In the Burton opera, with a libretto by Christopher Keene, Webster's 11 on-stage murders have been reduced to four, with the remaining marked characters killed off in rewrite or off-stage, or shown slipping away as the curtain goes down. Extraneous babies and mistresses and such 17th-century trimmings as a kissing scene with a hand that turns out to be severed from its body have been eliminated. Guilt and career advancement as motives have been substituted for snobbery, bossiness and greed.
The Duchess, "a lusty widow," is ordered by her two brothers, Duke Ferdinand and the Cardinal, not to remarry; they then present her with a loser named Count Malatesti, "a mere stick of suger-candy," who they order her to marry. In the Webster play, the brothers' admitted motivation is the conviction that the Duchess should obey them, marry within her station and, incidentally, share her property with her siblings. None of these ideas appeals to her, and she secretly marries the steward of her household and lives happily ever after until the brothers find out - they get suspicious when she has her first child, but don't really catch on until she's had three - and start the blood-letting.
Burton felt that incestuous romance and personal amibition were suggested in the characters of the brothers, and has Ferdinand driven by lust for his sister, while the Cardinal is applying for the job of Pope. The character of Bosola, a disgruntled employee of the Cardinal who does most of the dirty work, fascinated Burton, and Bosola now switches sides out of moral development instead of the realization that he is being double-crossed.
The moment in which he does so is "our bring-down-the-house aria," said Burton. And the Duchess' death scene, in which she calmly submits to strangulation after grandly declaring "I am Duchess of Malfi still" - one of the great lines of Jacobean or any literature - is the final climax.
Musically, the opera is "basically tonal and melodic, although there is a lot of polytonality and dissonance - I don't think many people will be offended by the music," said Burton. He describes himself as having been "an avant-garde composer who came back in the other direction" and who is now "unabashedly and unashamedly eclectic." He describes the style of the opera as "of course 20th-century, but built on 19th-century operatic tradition."
Roberta Palmer will sing the part of the Duchess; Stephen Dickson, Ferdinand; William Wildermann, the Cardinal; and Williams Dansby, Bosola.
Before each performance, Fred Scott, associate conductor of the Boston Opera, will discuss the opera at 7 p.m. in Wolf Trap's Meadow Tent. Curtain in the Filene Center is 8:30. Call 703/938-3810 for reservations.