thu 18/04/2024

Breaking the Rules, LSO St Luke's review – music and murder with Gesualdo | reviews, news & interviews

Breaking the Rules, LSO St Luke's review – music and murder with Gesualdo

Breaking the Rules, LSO St Luke's review – music and murder with Gesualdo

Clare Norburn's concert drama receives a welcome London premiere

Getting away with murder: Gerald Kyd as Gesualdo

The “concert drama” is on the up, offering audiences a mingled-genre means to experience music and its context simultaneously.

The author and singer Clare Norburn has an absolute peach of a story to tell in the "imagined testimony of Carlo Gesualdo, composer and murderer," the legendary musician who knifed to death his wife and her lover upon catching them in flagrante.

Norburn's Breaking the Rules received its London premiere on Saturday (it has been performed before in various other venues) in the splendid new festival Baroque at the Edge, and it shows us the composer, on the last day of his life, relating his history while facing not only the prospect of death but also of either purgatory or – perhaps even worse – a complete spiritual void. He attempts a covenant with God: his devotional music in return for His mercy… but is anybody there?

Many cheers for the magnificent malevolence of Gerald Kyd's Gesualdo

Growling and howling at life and fate, racked with – we hope – remorse and possessed by music in his head that will not leave him alone, Gesualdo in all his princely arrogance crouches like a spider in a web of his own music. The singing encompasses extracts from the Tenebrae Responsoria, Sacrae Cantiones and the Second, Fourth and Fifth Books of Madrigals, and it’s evident that Gesualdo’s extraordinary harmonic language stops at nothing at all in the service of the text, with the possible exception of parallel fifths. His character stands in stark contrast to the searing beauty of these creations.

It would perhaps be nice to learn more about the music itself, how and why he wrote it, what each piece signifies – though programme notes could do that if they were present. As it is, the music provides a type of sonic canvas against which the drama unfolds, only offering a direct illustration of it in a couple of cases, as far as one can tell. Gesualdo, it has to be said, is not an easy chap to care about. He’s an “overdog” – a prince, wealthy, privileged, influential, therefore able to get away literally with murder. He taunts the audience about their “little lives” the way he admits to bullying his second wife, Leonora d’Este. He hates, hates, hates his elder brother, who conveniently drops dead at 18. He hates himself. He seems to hate everyone else too. And there’s that murder, described in graphic detail – with Norburn adding a rather splendid twist which is dramatically convincing whether or not it’s true.

She does her best to draw our sympathy to this monstrous anti-hero. His mother died suddenly when he was four years old: he blamed himself. He had a beastly time with the Jesuits. Maria humiliated him for his inexperience on their wedding night. Both his sons have died; he will have no heir. Even so, by the end, maybe one can’t help feeling he is getting his comeuppance.Scene from Gesualdo music drama Directed by Nicholas Renton, with lighting by Natalie Rowland & Pitch Black Lighting, the performance found an ideal home at LSO St Luke’s, where a romanesque arch of window, exposed brickwork and stone pillars contribute a natural impression of Italian palazzo. Projections on the wall – cherry blossoms, a crucifixion statue, the masked face of the unfortunate Mrs G – were effective, though perhaps unnecessary in here.

The space was exploited magnificently, with the six members of the Marian Consort frequently on the move, pacing slowly along the aisles, grouped in the balcony, crossing the stage or bearing down upon the composer, their ensemble gorgeously balanced and unified no matter what. Clad in black, carrying candles, they themselves were part of the set and the lighting. A special star turn was lutenist Wezi Elliott, not least accompanying the two sopranos as they evoked the Concerto delle Donne – the ensemble of virtuoso female singers at the court of Ferrara, the one thing that Gesualdo adored.

And many cheers for the magnificent malevolence of Gerald Kyd’s Gesualdo, carrying the drama throughout this meaty, striking and thought-provoking evening. I hope the production, which drew a packed audience, has many more opportunities for performance. Can someone please alert the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse?

Gesualdo in his princely arrogance crouches like a spider in a web of his own music


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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