United Kingdom Carlo Gesualdo, Breaking the Rules: The Marian Consort [Rory McCleery (director, countertenor), Katie Trethewey, Gwendolin Martin (soprano), Guy Cutting, Ashley Turnell (tenor), Nick Ashby (bass)], Wezi Elliot (lute), Cambridge Summer Music Festival 2016, Jesus College Chapel, Cambridge. 18.7.16. (MH)
Gesualdo: Breaking the Rules
Gesualdo (actor): Gerald Kyd
Writer: Clare Norburn
Director: Nicholas Renton
Gesualdo: Tenebrae Responsories for Good Friday and Holy Saturday – selected; Book 2, 4, 5 & 6 of Madrigals – selected
The Cambridge Summer Music Festival of 2016 has as one of its aims, “to showcase new approaches to the classical repertoire in spectacular historic settings across the city centre”. Jesus College Chapel was perfect for this, being the oldest college chapel in Cambridge University. Built on the remains of the 12th Century St Mary’s Church and a mix of Romanesque, Gothic and Neogothic/Victorian architecture, it was acoustically and atmospherically perfect for this performance.
Writer and singer Clare Norburn provides an interesting piece of theatre interspersing music with narrative in this imagined testimony of Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo. At the end of the 16th century after an eventful life, he murdered his wife and her lover and wrote some revolutionary vocal music reflecting his tormented condition. To quote Stravinsky “… as Gesualdo’s mode of expression is dramatic, highly intimate, and very much in earnest, he weights the traditional madrigal of poised sentiments and conceits, of amorous delicacies and indelicacies, with a heavy load.” 2016, aptly, marks the 450th anniversary of Gesualdo’s birth.
The imagined setting for this music drama is the chapel of the family estate of Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, Count of Conza, on the last day of life.
The Jesus College chapel transept was the performance space with audience on 3 sides and backed by the choir screen. A simple rostrum with a chair and various small props for the actor, was initially, effectively lit by candlelight.
An Angelus bell heralded the approach of the singers with Tenebrae factae sunt, processing into the performance space followed by Gesualdo (Gerald Kyd). The drama unfolded with the actor relating memories of key events in his life. The audience were occasionally used as a sounding board with some comedic moments plus a few sexual and homoerotic bylines [which seem to be in every production today]. The dramatic climax came in part two, when Gesualdo brutally murdered his wife Donna Maria and her lover, causing the perpetrator eternal torment for his sins.
Throughout, the Marian Consort provided an exquisite vocal background to each scena, with occasional minimal interaction between actor and singers. This was very effective in the Madrigal sections Luci serene e chiare & Moro, lasso. The scenes were also simply up lit in the knave with additional use of gobos and projection on to the choir screen, emphasising each emotion being portrayed.
The movement of the Consort members around the chapel whilst singing was a real plus. The slow, ever changing positioning of voices created a choral aura in the extended performance space amongst the audience. Particularly powerful in Misere mei, Deus, the finale. There were times though, when the performance became a musical concert with linking narrative. The singers carried their music folders throughout, other than the finale, creating a barrier between them and the actor, allowing minimal eye contact. There was occasionally little going on dramatically. Conceivably the music was meant to be in Gesualdo’s head both as tormentor and comforter? This may have been the intention, but slightly blurred the dramatic image.
The singing throughout was impeccably English, beautifully delivered in this ideal acoustic. Notable solo passages from soprano Katie Trethewey, bright toned and resonant and countertenor Rory McCleery, whose ever watchful eye kept the ensemble in perfect harmony. The lute accompaniment of Wezi Elliot also added an enjoyable authentic sparkle. Perhaps the Italian Madrigals could have had a little more roister about them, making a contrast to the religioso pieces? Such a small point for a fine ensemble performance.
Gerald Kyd made a convincing Count Gesualdo, appropriately clad and portraying the torment of the the composer’s life experiences. Sadly, momentarily, whilst playing to the sides, some of his quieter passages became barely audible. However, a vividly enacted murder scene and finale brought the best in this believable characterisation.
Breaking the Rules is a project which is entirely worthy of the Arts Council England Support.