wed 19/06/2024

Betrayal, I Fagiolini, The Village Underground | reviews, news & interviews

Betrayal, I Fagiolini, The Village Underground

Betrayal, I Fagiolini, The Village Underground

Thrilling music-making but this story is lost in the telling

Kirsty Hopkins and Simon Palmer as two of Betrayal's tragic loversMark Allan/Barbican

It’s not often in classical music that you find yourself queuing under a railway bridge in Shoreditch at 9pm (and still less often that the artistic experience inside merits the endeavour). But get past the door staff and the effortful East London cool of it all, and I Fagiolini’s Betrayal (subtitled “A Polyphonic Crime Drama”) offers some pretty persuasive reasons to slough off the comforts of the concert hall and get gritty.

The show is the follow-up to I Fagiolini and director John La Bouchardière’s previous collaboration The Full Monteverdi, and follows a similar pattern – threading a sequence of renaissance madrigals (and motets, here) into a narrative sequence, a music-drama that strips these elemental works from the polite conventions of classical performance. And if you thought the Monteverdi was intense, just wait till you hear the Gesualdo.

Betrayal currently feels like work-in-progress

Everyone’s favourite composer-cum-murderer, Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613) is better known for killing his wife and her lover after catching them in flagrante than for his music – an extraordinary collection of harmonic contortions and angular melodic convulsions that barely contain all the composer’s violence, grief and passion within their fragile polyphonic forms. They are a natural fit for dramatic treatment, and vocal ensemble I Fagiolini – confronting and always emotionally direct – are the best possible performers for the job. I question though whether, in the associative and abstract Betrayal, La Bouchardière has given them enough to work with.

Each of Robert Hollingworth’s six singers is paired with a contemporary dancer, and each pair then play out their own self-contained narrative of love, conflict and eventual murder in movement and music, spread around a single warehouse space. The Village Underground is unlit, save for small torches distributed to the audience, who must grope their way around following the action and music as they choose.

With “crime scene” photo boards spread throughout the venue, along with little heaps of significant objects – three-dimensional still lifes – and stern ushers dressed as police officers telling people off for talking too loudly, it’s all very Punchdrunk, and a decade ago it would have been more impressive. But immersive theatre and its audience have evolved to expect more, and I found myself wondering whether all this immersion really did amplify the emotional experience you’d have from simply sitting in the dark listening to these superb musicians singing this astonishing repertoire in a more conventional way.

With no visible texts or translations (how easy would it be to project these onto walls), the movement and dance has a lot of meaning to supplement, and given the rather similar subject-matter and mood of the madrigals there’s inevitably a certain amount of repetition. It’s hard to construct a dramatic arc from texts that rarely move beyond urgent, desperate and tragic, and although variety emerges musically from the combinations of voices and their shifting balance in the space, it’s not quite enough to sustain an hour’s entertainment.

That said, the singing, and the sheer technical achievement of performing these works from memory in so acoustically challenging a setup, is thrilling. If you’re feeling harmonically at sea (and you will), you might find it best to stick close to bass Jimmy Holliday, who anchors everything with resonant and characterful singing, playing nicely off against tenor Matthew Long’s bright lyricism.

Betrayal currently feels like work-in-progress, and the notion of a “polyphonic crime drama” feels like a red herring. Strip narrative out altogether and the show would be left with emotion as the sole thread through the maze of Gesualdo’s music – surely a more reliable guide, and one that would throw more emphasis on these brave and brilliant singers and their outstanding performances and less on a story that never quite reveals itself.

  • Betrayal at The Village Underground on 15 May, then touring to Cambridge and Salisbury until 5 June
The singing, and the sheer technical achievement of performing these works in such a setup is thrilling


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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