Italian Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo, the Prince of Venosa, murdered his wife and her lover in flagrante. In later life he had his servants whip him each evening. Of course, the violent dissonance of much of his secular vocal music is symptomatic of a diseased mind. Right?
Wrong. Gesualdo was in fact working within a tradition of musical experimentation that grew out of the Este court at Ferrara and included such luminaries as Luzzasco Luzzaschi. The truth is we are too much in thrall to the sensational to dismiss such spurious connections. As we are to spectacle - especially around festival time.
Which is why Parisian new-media artist Benjamin Bergery and Perth dance-theatre maker and performer James Berlyn's subtle, spare responses to Gesualdo's Tenebrae Responsories as sung by the St George's Cathedral Consort under the direction of Joseph Nolan are so refreshing - and so powerful.
The Tenebrae Responsories are traditionally spoken or sung during the night or early morning of the last three days of the Christian calendar's Holy Week, which commemorates the passion and death of Christ. During each service candles are successively extinguished, eventually plunging the church into darkness.
Bergery has rearranged the order of 10 of Gesualdo's responsories and used subdued lighting effects and video projections to create, in collaboration with Berlyn and a team of dancers including Claudia Alessi and Linton Aberle, "a series of tableaux vivants . . . bathed in light rhythms". In essence, a three-act passion play of sorts evoking the same haunted atmosphere as certain passages in Werner Herzog's film Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices and Derek Jarman's strange, semi- fictionalised biopic Caravaggio.
The various tableaux, redolent of the chiaroscuro of depositions, pietas and crucifixions and suchlike by Caravaggio, de la Tour, Rubens and Ribera, are as moving as they are simple, the dancers as precise and expressive in their movements and attitudes as the choir and Nolan are in their crisp, vigorous response to Gesualdo's tremulous, passionate response to the biblical texts.
It might surprise some to have the barefooted choir become a very real protagonist in the drama, inhabiting and moving through the Romanesque hall in various ways.
But their and Nolan's interpretation of Gesualdo's often difficult music is as fine as any as I have heard, live or recorded.
Tenebrae et Lux depends for much of its effect on revelation and surprise. I have therefore left much out. The simplest and best solution is to see it for yourself.
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