The Duchess of Malfi
Music by Torsten Rasch
Libretto by Ian Burton, from John Webster’s play
World Premiere: 13 July 2010
The Duchess of Malfi, a young Aragonian noblewoman recently widowed, has two brothers: her twin Ferdinand, the Duke of Calabria , and her elder brother, the Cardinal of Aragon. They have expressly forbidden her ever to marry again, but the reasons for their decision remain obscure, although in Ferdinand’s case they seem to conceal suppressed incestuous feelings. The brothers place Daniel de Bosola, a professional assassin, in her service. He has recently come out of prison and the brothers employ him initially as a spy. Ultimately, he becomes the Duchess’s torturer and executioner.
The Duchess falls in love with her steward, Antonio Bologna, and secretly marries him. Over the next four years she gives birth to three of his children, a fact which the couple try to conceal from the brothers. Of course, Bosola discovers their guilt and reports it to his paymasters.
The Duchess and Antonio go into exile under the pretence of making a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Loretto. The Cardinal becomes a general and joins the war against the King of Naples. The Duchess is separated from Antonio and imprisoned in her own castle, mentally tortured in a variety of hideous ways, and finally strangled, along with two of her children.
Ferdinand goes mad, the Cardinal poisons his mistress Julia, and in the end, Ferdinand, the Cardinal, Antonio and Bosola are all dead, after a bloodbath of violence (as well as despair, regret and loss) which takes place in the darkest confusion.
John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1614) is based on a series of real events which occurred about a hundred years before the play was written. The story of Giovanna d’Aragona, the Duchess of Amalfi, widowed at the age of eighteen, and of her two brothers, Duke Ferdinand of Calabria and the Cardinal of Aragon, had recently been retold in William Painter’s The Palace of Pleasure (1581), a collection of scandalous tales about the decadent Italian courts. These stories contained the same glamour and deadly fascination for Jacobean England that Chicago and its Mafia families and mobs had for cinema audiences and readers in the 1930s, and which we still find in The Godfather and The Sopranos.
The play still has the power to shock, not least because of its startling surrealist imagery; when we hear
What would it pleasure me to have my throat cut
With diamonds? Or to be smothered
With cassia? Or to be shot to death with pearls?
I know death hath ten thousand several doors
For men to take their exits, and ’tis found
They go on such strange geometrical hinges
You may open them both ways
we are aware that this jagged, glittering language situates us in a recognizably modern world, and one which is wrapped in a profound moral nihilism. Both of Webster’s two great plays are filled with a similar kind of utterance, as well as being suffused with a terrible and oppressively modern atmosphere, in scenes of torture, imprisonment and death.
For a Renaissance audience, the fact that the Duchess marries her steward Antonio Bologna – someone considerably beneath her socially – would have been extremely shocking, and would have been seen as an almost inevitable prelude to the final tragedy.
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