Well ... here is something intriguing,
and no mistake.
Along with I suspect
many listeners, I was unaware that Francesco
D’Avalos was a composer as well as a
conductor. He explains in his notes
to this CD, "My education has been
grounded in the symphonic music of Central
Europe. As a result I am as close to
symphonic music as I am far from the
music of opera, while at the same time
appreciating the latter".
He continues by propounding
that in eighteenth century opera he
believes the form "achieved its
equilibrium" with the division
between recitative and aria. In romantic
music, and especially verismo, the music
was reduced to a secondary role and
did not always retain its comprehensibility.
By losing or subsuming the recitative
it became increasingly difficult to
make out the stage action as the sung
words became more and more incomprehensible.
This led D’Avalos to
"conceive a music drama without
an actual libretto", the stage
action unfolding "as in a silent
film". Soloists and chorus only
sing in situations in which they might
do so in real life. For example a soothsayer
relates her visions at several key points
in the action, or the chorus ululates
to conjure-up the feeling of a carnival
Moreover, the music
"unfolds ... as a piece of absolute
music because it is structured in a
manner that disassociates it from limitations
imposed by the libretto". D’Avalos
admits to partial use of Wagnerian leitmotiv,
but maintains this is only at a fundamental
level, "harnessing individual moments
of the drama to an underlying unity".
This substratum acts as an archive from
which themes are derived, the composer
likening the effect to a sea, a complex
movement of waves on the surface receiving
its significance and unity from the
layers of motionless water beneath.
It follows therefore
that given the absence of visual stimuli
on CD a great deal of weight is thrown
upon the orchestral score to carry the
sense of the action. This it does up
to a point. However I would strongly
suggest the listener not only absorbs
the composer’s preamble, but keeps the
synopsis to hand, at least until the
musical architecture becomes more familiar.
The story involves
the composer and nobleman Carlo Gesualdo
and his deathbed reminiscences of his
first marriage to, and infamous murder
of, Maria di Venosa née D’Avalos.
(Although the notes only mention Francesco
D’Avalos as being born into "an
ancient and aristocratic family",
one presumes he is a distant relative
of the unfortunate Maria).
The couple alas are
mismatched, lack mutual understanding
and their relationship becomes stormy.
Maria meets a Prince, Fabrizio Carafa,
at a ball and falls in love with him.
A mournful chorus as well as a wandering
soothsayer predict disaster. Despite
this they have their first assignation
in Maria’s apartments in the Gesualdo
household. Carlo suspects and becomes
threatening. Following a tavern scene,
Maria and Fabrizio are witnessed in
the throes of passion. Gesualdo and
his retinue go out on a hunt next morning
and during stormy exchanges the Prince
is informed officially of his wife’s
infidelity and the name of her lover.
In the penultimate scene both are killed,
by the wronged husband, and his henchmen.
The final tableau returns us to Gesualdo’s
deathbed where, on finally dying, Maria
appears as a vision and gestures her
husband to join her in a "remote
and timeless realm, free of passions".
Whilst it would be
fascinating to see Maria di Venosa issued
as a DVD, performed as D’Avalos intended,
even in its present audio-only form
there are definite rewards. The artists
on the discs clearly believe in the
work, and they are backed-up by sumptuous
engineering, courtesy of engineer/producer
in the vaults for over a decade (the
recording was made during the summer
of 1994), if you are at all intrigued
do try it. Maria certainly has its own
strengths, not least a wonderfully brooding
atmosphere which stayed with me for
days afterward. Moreover I couldn’t
envisage it better done. I just hope
someone takes courage and mounts some
performances as a result of this release.