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DVD Review

Carlo Gesualdo

Arthaus DVD 109208

Death for Five Voices

  • Walter Beloch
  • Angelo Carrabs
  • Salvatore Catorano
  • Pasquale D'Onofrio
  • Vincenzo Giusto
  • Giovanni Iudica
  • Antonio Massa
  • Gennaro Miccio
  • Marisa Milli
  • Silvano Milli
  • Angelo Michele Trorriello
  • Raffaele Virocolo
Milva, contralto
Gesualdo Consort of London/Gerald Place
Il Complesso Barocco/Alan Curtis
Il Principe d'Avalos/Werner Herzog
Arthaus DVD 109208 Widescreen PCM Stereo 60minutes+documentary
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan
Also available on Blu-ray 109209:
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It's probably inevitable that any film, documentary, drama, novel or other work which is not specifically or purely musical and which concentrates on the music of Carlo Gesualdo (1566 - 1613) also acknowledges the scurrilous and sensational aspects of his life. Within the fist minute and a half of the commentary which begins Werner Herzog's hour-long DVD on Arthaus, Death for Five Voices (Tod für fünf Stimmen), we're asked to consider Gesualdo's musical achievement as being "of the greatest stature" anticipating Expressionism. We're asked implicitly, in other words, to look more deeply at Gesualdo. Very welcome.

If we do, if we go along with Herzog, we gain a great deal in understanding and appreciating Gesualdo. And we almost certainly come away liking his music more.

Death for Five Voices was made in 1995 for ZDF television, and is re-released here on DVD and Blu-ray. This enthralling and informative film does indeed concentrate on the music of this larger-than-life contemporary of Shakespeare and necessarily deals with what, regrettably, is likely always to remain the most notorious deed of the "Prince of Venosa", the fact that he murdered his wife and her lover. But there's much more.

Herzog is known to have considered the film one of his favorites. "Death for Five Voices is the one that really runs amok," the director is quoted as saying in the collection of interviews, "Herzog on Herzog" (203; ISBN-10: 0571207081 ISBN-13: 978-0571207084). But it's in no way bizarre, unduly eccentric or overly sensational dramatically or visually – or, for that matter, in terms of its technique. Those wishing to explore Gesualdo and his hold on our imagination will probably start by being intrigued by the almost quirky stylized approach taken; and will be amply satisfied.

Death for Five Voices mixes narration, interviews in locations (still) peopled with a diverse collection of individuals who are obviously connected with and otherwise relevant to Gesualdo's world; and eerily representative of it. There are also invented and/or staged scenes with expert performances of several of the composer's madrigals. Herzog's basic premise is that Gesualdo tortured himself (physically, mentally and emotionally) in expiation for what he had done.

But we only really understand this aspect of the composer's life and times if we explore the notion that he was… extravagant and indulgent before that event. Herzog's relatively fast-moving film supports such an assertion by the admixture of these various elements remarkably cohesively. The essential concept is that of apparent and real locals, experts, "survivors" speaking to the camera to illuminate and illustrate the enigma of Gesualdo. Herzog's success is in eliding the real with the invented in such ways as to make veracity irrelevant to us as watchers looking for enlightenment about Gesualdo.

These include a worker who gives us a tour of Gesualdo's ruined castle, where we meet a man who plays music into the cracks in the walls in order to silence the demons which haunt the place; a woman claiming to be the ghost of Gesualdo's murdered wife, Donna Maria d'Avalos; workers from a local mental health clinic who treated her, and – like British composer Peter Warlock/Philip Heseltine (1894 – 1930) – two patients alive now who believe themselves to be Carlo Gesualdo; two cooks discuss their reconstruction of one of Gesualdo's wedding feasts – with 125 courses; workers at the Palazzo San Severo in Naples, where Gesualdo committed the murders, including an heir of d'Avalos at – apparently – the very bed of the murders (but see below); and a local chapel with – apparently – the preserved bodies of the two victims.

We should not be put off by presumed doubts about the authenticity of these: what matters even more than their evocation (unhysterically controlled by Herzog) is the effect they still have 400 years later… "He was a bit of a devil, he must have been a bit of a devil, this Gesualdo," says one of the cooks, repeatedly, with a mixture of disbelief and suppressed scorn.

Herzog achieves this projection from the past to the present in his inimitable way. He invites us to suspend the criticism which would otherwise cause us to stumble at inconsistencies and the mapping of twentieth century conventions onto Renaissance scenes. But – again – the essence of Gesualdo's achievement is what counts. The aforementioned woman claiming to be d'Avalos' ghost is actually portrayed by the popular Italian actress and singer, Milva. Similarly, a scene with a museum curator was scripted.

Herzog's artistic license is justified because it's so successfully illustrative of the intensity of Gesualdo and his world: Gesualdo did not murder his son by making him ride on a swing for three days as madrigals were sung at him. There are other examples. If you're looking for a linear documentary, these may confuse or conflict. But if you want one artist's understanding of another, they'll make perfect sense. The way in which Herzog circles around the events has the effect of filling out our understanding of the composer: driven, single-minded, doubting, indulgent and perhaps possessing a certain megalomania… from his obsessive cutting down of trees on his estate to the second assault on Maria d'Avalos, delivering 28 further blows to be sure she was dead.

If Herzog had asked his performers (actors, musicians, speakers such as the palaces' custodians etc) to embellish or sensationalize these aspects of the otherwise somewhat under-appreciated Gesualdo, such sleights of hand would be questionable. As it is, Herzog has assimilated what we can reasonably know about Gesualdo's motivations, weaknesses – and hence appreciate his strengths better.

On the other hand, Alan Curtis does not mince his words when he says that those (modern musicologists) who have accused Gesualdo of incompetence and of being amateurs are themselves… "incompetent amateurs"! Citing Stravinsky's admiration for Gesualdo, Curtis advances the latter's cause and very successfully leads the way in this film's advocacy of a rethink.

Death for Five Voices does not descend into impressionistic self-indulgence, though. This is chiefly thanks to the use of the appropriate central and southern Italian locations, and the almost matter-of-fact delivery of the "characters" used to illustrate and illuminate mental illness, obsession, recollection and creativity etc.

Rather it uses skillfully-combined locations, voices and recollections from our age; and gently and sensitively dramatized sequences to evoke one person's (Herzog's) sense of the essence of Gesualdo and his world. Yes, the director takes liberties; and makes eccentric forays perhaps just beyond what many music-lovers will readily or always feel at home with – such as the sequence where the ghost of Maria d'Avalos avers that she lives… "in heaven" but can be found if you fly a helicopter over an audience at La Scala.

Eccentric, idiosyncratic. But just on the right side of the unnecessarily perverse. And a way to keep the interest of the viewer alive perhaps. Such effects achieve their purpose of recreating speculatively the possible mood of most composers such as Gesualdo in Gesualdo's straits. Just as typically potentially odd are such sequences as the young man experiencing therapy by riding a horse; his apparent doctor seems to intervene and truncate Herzog's filming in order to protect the privacy of the patient. Again, it's an evocation of the topos of mental "illness" wholly relevant to so many aspects of Gesualdo's life. It also illustrates the way in which Death for Five Voices has more to do with Gesualdo's life and the extent to which his life explains his music than with any kind of musicology as such. Although Curtis does advocate taking risks in performance. Italy is about risks; and Gesualdo was very Italian.

Don't come to this DVD expecting "straight" musical exposition. Although Curtis' direction of our attention to the composer's reception from the Renaissance onwards does perhaps more to clarify Gesualdo's status than all the harping on dissonance and uxoricide. Similarly, the quite remarkable interview with the current Prince of Avalos, who composed an opera on the murder; and whose opinion is sought as to just how "modern" Gesualdo should be regarded as being. He plays the Tristan chord and references Gesualdo's famed chromatic harmonic tensions. They are here modified from "dissonance" to "distance" of tonality. As in Brückner. Given the concentration of much of the rest of Death for Five Voices on lack of fulfillment, on longing and on dissatisfaction (the previous scene alludes to Gesualdo's lifelong insomnia, for example), there is a highly satisfying wholeness to Herzog's conception here.

This unusual but highly satisfying DVD can be warmly recommended for providing a fresh and convincing corrective to our understanding of a composer where the most oft-proffered assessments are so tightly channelled to the sensational as to be almost useless. If for no other reason than to be invited to consider Curtis' assertion that on first hearing Gesualdo's music one may find it more "fascinating" than beautiful, you should take a good look at Death for Five Voices. Like Curtis, you may come to add "beautiful" as you gain in understanding – not only of the extent to which Gesualdo's life (and times) can be seen as an allegory for the struggle between good and evil; but also of his life and music.

Copyright © 2016, Mark Sealey