HOLTEN Gesualdo Shadows
The year 2017 may have delivered the first opera about Claudio Monteverdi (at least according to the creators of La tragedia di Claudio M) but this work by the Danish composer and conductor Bo Holten, first seen in Odense in November 2016, adds to a colossal list of operas that take Carlo Gesualdo as their subject. Holten’s opera, to a libretto by his former wife Eva Sommestad Holten, focuses more on the composer’s mental demise and musical imagination than on the murder of his unfaithful spouse, which Holten describes as ‘nothing extraordinary’ given the social context. That act does figure, and dramatically so. But the presence of an elusive Nick Shadow-like character acting as Gesualdo’s conscience, confidant and musical assistant means we’re more inside the composer’s head than objectively watching the events of his life play out.
We get a straightforward narrative in which the three acts equate to three chapters in the composer’s life: his first marriage in Act 1; his second marriage (no murder in that one) and musically stimulating time in Ferrara in Act 2; and his return home, his descent into madness and death in Act 3. We are shown a figure in constant suffering, paranoid to the point of arrogance about his creative legacy and ultimately too obsessed with music to allow meaningful human relationships to take root.
Writing music about music is dangerous, especially in the theatre. Holten doesn’t just neutralise the problem; he gives his opera all its charm by rooting it in the music in question. His own specialist vocal septet Musica Ficta appear as a chorus, primarily occupied with straight (but highly idiomatic) performances of seven Gesualdo madrigals (mostly from the seminal Fourth and Sixth books) and two motets; the drama is at its keenest when Gesualdo himself, Gert Henning-Jensen, is railing over the top of these works in his fulsome operatic tenor. The rest of the cast are ‘standard’ opera singers too, while Concerto Copenhagen (with added oboe and sackbuts to make it ‘Gesualdo odd’) play an often enchanting score on period instruments, born of the expression of the time (full of spirited dances) but with a slightly freer harmonic rein and a touch of stern Lutheran melancholy. Much of the music is improvised to figured bass.
While the benefit of Holten’s experience conducting Gesualdo’s own music is huge, there is something occasionally odd and ill-fitting about his English text-setting that I can’t quite put my finger on (it may be the unease of hearing English words in such a distinctively Italian idiom). Even with the frequent interjection of the madrigal group, textures can feel overly uniform; but Holten knows how to generate a theatrical climax and there is a thrilling one in Act 3 when Gesualdo is told he is to be sued.
As usual, Henning-Jensen is unflinchingly puppyish, in bright and thrilling voice and wholly committed, but unable to reveal much under the immediate surface emotions of this complex character. He is well supported by Tor Lind as the Mephistopheles-like Shadow and the rest of the seven-strong operatic cast. But given that the Funen Opera’s auditorium is a black box, and the fact that the band is effectively on stage, it would have made a world of difference to have altered the lighting for this DVD filming, perhaps even shot it in studio conditions without an audience. As it is, what we see on screen is relentlessly dark, colourless and punctuated by many awkward comings and goings.