Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
Like it or deplore it, the first performance of Stephen Douglas Burton's "The Duchess of Malfi" Friday might at Wolf Trap was hardly a routine operatic world premiere.
The cautious or the cynical might see the dead hand of a discredited style reaching out of the 19th century and clutching modern music in its spasmodic grip. For the scholarly, it might seem the latest and most extreme example of the phenomenon we are beginning to call neoromanticism. But to those, including this reviewer, who surrendered to its powerful rhetoric and yielded the necessary (and not easy) suspension of disbelief, it was the birth of a masterpiece.
The basic question can be argued endlessly, for there is no final answer: Are we willing to accept from a contemporary composer - a teacher at George Mason University and the conductor of a local orchestra - the kind of behavior we are willing to accept from, for example Giuseppe Verdi? In Burton's case, I think we must; he does it with such swashbuckling panache.
Take the final scene, which opens with a madhouse bedlam worthy of Marat-Sade and ends with four corpses on the stage (one a strangled infant), one man still alive but poisoned and dying and another one driven understandably insane.
Before the final carnage, the scene climaxes with the heroine confronting her killers and tormentors, who are also her brothers: "I am Duchess of Malfi still! Plagues . . . consume them! Let them, like tyrants, never be remembered but for the ill they have done . . . Death is the best gift you can give or I can take . . . " Then the deadpan stage directions: "The executioners strangle the duchess and the child at the cardinal's signal."
Such gruesome material is found throughout the play, which was written by 17th-century tragedian John Webster and made into a libretto by Christopher Keene, who also conducted the first performance. But whatever the demands of the violent plot or the dense language. Burton supplies a hybrid of modern and 19he century music to match the words.
"The Duchess of Malfi" is an old-fashioned, blood-and-thunder grand opera in the high romantic style, and no two ways about it. This fact is established right from the beginning with a lavish party scene, the beginning of a dark conspiracy, a duel and a childbirth, all sketched in vivid musical and dramatic colors.
While some of the music in this act is more efficient than lyrical, providing a good, fast-moving vehicle for necessary plot information, the composer finds time, in little more than half an hour, to pause for a rapturous love duet and for a madrigal that is clearly modern but hints delicately at the Renaissance in some of its cadences. The Renaissance style is also neatly indicated in the dances of the opening party scene, which are authentically staged with appropriate music.
The orchestral music is colorful and self-assured throughout. Burton is not afraid to orchestrate with bold, simple strokes, to match bold, simple actions. Occasionally, when it seems to fit in naturally, he even dares to pen an orchestral phrase of the purest Tchaikovskian romanticism. Yet the orchestra, powerful as it is, never outbalances the voices, which remain - as they should - the focus of this drama.
The music seemed to gather fluency and emotional power as it progressed. Most of the voices also seemed to improved as they warmed up, notably those of soprano Roberta Palmer in the title role and Neil Rosenshein, who sang the part of her lover and is, incidentally, a better swordsman than any other tenor I can recall. The most spectacular improvement in the course of the opera was that of bass baritone William Dansby, who began with a very shaky voice but made a total triumph of Act 3.
Bass William Wildermann, playing the role of the cardinal who wants to be pope, and who engineers most of the numerous horrors, was the most consistently reliable singer of the evening and gave the most striking dramatic performance. Baritone Steven Dickson was nearly his equal, and Judith Christin sang her secondary role impeccably.
Keene's conducting was impressive, as was the performance by members of the Arlington Dance Theatre. Butthe evening's top honors must go to composer Burton. His opera would be easy to ridicule, as is, for example "La Forza del Destino." But love it or hate it, "The Duchess of Malfi" can hardly leave you indifferent, and for a piece of modern music, that in itself is a triumph.