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Francesco D’AVALOS (b. 1930)
Maria di Venosa: music drama for orchestra, soloists and chorus in two parts and fourteen scenes (1992) [112:28]
Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa
Maria d’Avalos: Princess of Venosa
Fabrizio Carafa: Duke of Andria
Giulio Gesualdo: Uncle of Carlo
Priest Musician: in the service of Carlo Gesualdo
Laura Scala: chief lady-in-waiting to Maria D’Avalos
Susan Bullock: soprano
Hilary Summers: contralto
Apollo Voices (Ruth Holten (sop), Helen Parker (sop) Robin Blaze (counter-tenor) Robert Johnstone (tenor) Christopher Foster (bass))
Philharmonia Chorus/David Hill
Philharmonia Orchestra/Francesco D’Avalos
Rec: All Saints Church, Tooting, Aug 1994
CHANDOS CHAN 10355(2) [53:38 + 59:00]

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 crowd.

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 Brian Culverhouse.

Despite languishing 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.

Ian Bailey



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