In E16, near one of the outer ends of the Docklands Light Railway, is Great Eastern Quay, and a disused office block, where you are given an appointment card for a vaccination programme, a murky-looking drink, a white mask to cover most of your face (which must be worn At All Times), and a brief health-and-safety spiel. You are then left to your own devices. Welcome to the new collaboration piece between the ENO and Punchdrunk!

From this point, any two accounts of the evening will diverge. More of an art installation incorporating elements of live music and action than a traditional performance, audience members walk at their own pace and in their own route around very dimly-lit multiple spaces spread over three floors of the building, encountering musicians, dancers, and actors at various points. Performers — recognisable by their lack of masks — are constantly on the move, appearing in different places for different scenes, with little or no indication of what might happen when or where. The basic elements of Webster’s 1614 play are present: the young widowed Duchess, her secret lover, her corrupt brothers and their spy/assassin; however, any sense of narrative is fractured and distorted both temporally and spatially, and — crucially — incomplete, as it is, effectively, impossible for an individual audience member to see and hear everything. Rather unfortunately, given that this article is written by an opera fan for an opera publication, this particular audience member’s choice of route did not lead to very many of the main operatic scenes, and I missed some singers entirely!

My ‘prologue’ consisted of a series of small rooms to walk through, prepared with an extreme level of detail as the offices, labs and store rooms of a 20th century research facility. Focusing on the theme of lycanthropy (from which the historical Duchess’s brother, Duke Ferdinand, is thought to have suffered), neat desks with annotated psychological research papers gave way to test tubes, blood samples and patient charts for experimental medical treatments, and a cell with bloodied, heavily-scratched walls. Combined with a pre-recorded electro-industrial soundscape (like the live music, by Torsten Rasch), the overall effect was an increasingly sinister mood of unease, and a highlighting of key themes of madness, disturbed identity and sexuality, and imprisonment.

I quite literally stumbled into my first main scene, having been grabbed from behind and then shoved out of the way by an incoming Ferdinand (counter-tenor Andrew Watts), followed by his lascivious gaggle of courtiers (which might have been more surprising and/or alarming had my last Punchdrunk experience not involved my being chased around by a madman with a chainsaw). The scene also involved the Duchess (contralto Claudia Huckle), her dictatorial older brother the Cardinal (bass-baritone Freddie Tong), spy Daniel de Bosola (baritone Richard Burkhard), and around 20 musicians playing highly chromatic and rhythmically complex music which, nevertheless, had more than a tinge of the Jacobean court about it. As with the majority of the performance, I found the words almost completely unintelligible, but the characters and relationships were nevertheless clearly introduced and defined through the physical and vocal acting of the leads. An unusual choice to make the Duchess and twin brother Ferdinand a contralto and counter-tenor, it was particularly effective when they sang together, and when Watts was pitched high and Huckle low.

On the first floor, I found a church scene with a conductor in the pulpit and singers and woodwind players in the pews, with plenty of room to wander around or sit amongst them – in my case, placing myself admiringly between the flute and oboe, where I could soak up their beautiful tones while taking the opportunity to take a good look at their scores. I did, admittedly, wonder whether the many empty places and music stands were intended to be empty, or whether some of the musicians had just got lost in the dark when moving between scenes. In another area, the Duchess and her lover made stylised acrobatic love, accompanied by a large string section playing Berg-like harmonies from music which appeared to be floating in space. One particularly effective aspect of the music was the way the live acoustic sections merged in and out of the pre-recorded electronic soundscape at the beginning and end of scenes; another was the incorporation of Huckle’s voice in the recordings, deep, deliberately breathy and slightly distorted, inhabiting the rooms of her castle even when she herself was absent.

In addition to the main scenes, various other themes of power, imprisonment, and bestiality were played out in small integrative dramatic or danced scenes of varying relation to the central story. In a wire forest on the second floor, a solitary clarinettist played to a growling wolf-man, he running on all fours around and through the crowd (and at one point unwisely attempting to bite the ankle of an audience member who promptly hit him with her handbag). Elsewhere, a psychiatric nurse battled to restrain and medicate her violent patients, at least one of whom also seemed to think she was a wolf. At one point, three of the wolf-people appeared from the trees, and set upon a stark naked Ferdinand, although I couldn’t see quite what they were doing to him, or whether he was supposed to be enjoying it or not.

Very little of what I had seen and heard up to this point could really be traditionally described as opera. However, for the finale, the audience members were herded from wherever they had ended up into a large area with a raised platform in the centre and the whole orchestra assembling at one end. This 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.

I can in all honestly say that during the evening I was never bored for a second, which is not necessarily always the case in conventional theatrical performances. However, unlike in the more structured route through Punchdrunk’s 2009 production It Felt Like A Kiss, the knowledge that somewhere in the building there was potentially-wonderful live music happening, but that one was missing out on it (albeit while watching a naked counter-tenor being pursued by wolves) made for a rather frustrating game of operatic hide-and-seek. If there were any tickets left, I’d definitely go back and have another go, though.

[Review written for and reproduced here with the kind permission of Opera Britannia.]