By Samuel L. Leiter
Carlos Gesualdo (1566-1613)—a contemporary of Shakespeare’s—may be the most famous composer I never heard of. An Italian nobleman who became Prince of Venosa, he was noted for polyphonic mastery as represented by his three books of sacred music and six of madrigals; one of the latter provides the title for Death for Five Voices, an ambitious but mediocre new musical by the Prospect Theatre Company.
Just as responsible for putting Gesualdo on the map as his ahead-of-its-time music is the infamy he achieved when, in Naples in 1590, he caught his exquisite wife, Maria D’Avalos, and his famously handsome friend, Fabrizio Carafa, the Duke of Andria, in flagrante delicto and brutally murdered them. It inspired novels, a Werner Herzog film, and eleven operas, but the story first came to the Prospect’s attention in a 2011 New Yorker story by Alex Ross. http://www.therestisnoise.com/2011/12/gesualdo.html
Most of Prospect’s musicals have had a lighter tone, but this one (whose title refers to a five-part harmony) goes dark. Composer, co-lyricist, and co-librettist Peter Mills and co-librettist and director Cara Reichel have created a semi-operatic chamber piece for seven; admittedly, it takes liberties with historical facts, some for musical reasons, and some for narrative ones. For example, in order to introduce another female voice into the harmonies, it posits that Gesualdo’s father, who was still alive during the events, is dead, replacing him with Gesualdo’s domineering mother.
When his brother, the Prince of Venosa, dies, Carlo Gesualdo (Nathan Gardner), a young, high-strung nobleman-composer, is told by his imperious mother, Girolama (Meghan McGeary), that he must marry quickly if he’s to become prince himself. He weds the twice-widowed Maria D’Avalos (Manna Nichols), who soon bears him a son. Maria’s attended to by her servant, Sylvia (L.R. Davidson), whose palace opposite is Carlo’s servant, Pietro (Ryan Bauer-Walsh). Carlo—an aesthete devoted to immortalizing beauty—is so involved with his music he ignores Maria, who falls for Carlo’s visiting friend, Fabrizio (Nicholas Rodriguez). Alfonso (Jeff Williams), Carlo’s uncle, an ambitious priest who keeps rising in rank (with help from Girolama), learns in a confession of the affair, leading to Carlos’s vicious revenge (for which he goes unpunished).
Because so much interest resides in the bloody conclusion, everything preceding it is bound to be anticlimactic. Even as the affair blooms, the stereotypical characters aren’t interesting enough to keep us in thrall. Carlos is never exactly likable but a scene in which he mistreats Sylvia seems so unexpected that it comes off as forced, a setup for his ultimate cruelty. Moreover, the show’s few laughs don’t compensate for the lack of any humorous characters or songs. Even the servants are serious. Death for Five Voices never escapes the specter of musty, nineteenth-century, costume tragedies about Renaissance lovers, like Francesca da Rimini.
Reichel’s staging, as usual, is lovely, and the show is physically attractive, with a set of brick pillars and candles designed by Ann Bartek, moody lighting by Susan M. Nicholson, and fine-looking Renaissance costumes by Sidney Shannon. One might ask, though, why Sylvia looks more like a tavern wench than a noblewoman’s servant. The women all sing well and the men are satisfactory (although Gardner wrestles with some notes), but there are no breakouts.
Death for Five Voices may be about a noted composer, yet don’t go expecting to hear much of what he wrote, except briefly at the beginning and end. As Mills has explained, Gesualdo’s music wasn’t intended to drive a dramatic narrative. Mills’s own score, which seeks to embody some of the harmonic complexities of Gesualdo’s style, does this better, but lacks variety and is melodically unexciting; there are some excellent harmonic choral moments, but for the most part what you get are portentous lyrics dominated every few lines by soaring notes; few, however, make your heart soar.
Death for Five Voices
Sheen Center 18 Bleecker Street, NYC Running Time: 2 hrs. 25 minutes
Through April 17