Music: A Duo of Duchesses

John Webster's doomed heroine gets not one opera but two

For centuries, opera librettists snubbed The Duchess of Malfi. The cut was unkind, since her tragic tale is the very stuff of grand opera. John Webster's play, published in 1623, is admirably lurid and complicated. There is the Duchess's secret and forbidden marriage to her steward Antonio. There are her two evil brothers: Ferdinand, who is driven mad by incestuous passion for her; and the Cardinal, who schemes to be Pope. After her marriage is discovered, the Duchess is imprisoned and tormented by madmen. At the end, everyone dies violently.

Now, opera has embraced Webster's...

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