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Gesualdo - Death for Five Voices
A Film by Werner Herzog
Il Complesso Barocco/Alan Curtis;
Gesualdo Consort of
London/Gerald Place
PCM Stereo; Region Code 0 Worldwide.
No rec info.
ARTHAUS DVD 102 055 [60:00]

Anyone who has heard a little of the life story of Carlo of Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, cannot help but be intrigued. Cuckolded by his beautiful wife, he plotted to surprise her in the arms of her lover and brutally executed both of them. Unpunished by the law, he descended into madness, but in the process composed some of the most haunting, and easily the most harmonically daring, music of the day.

If you know a little about the Gesualdo, this documentary is unlikely to enlighten you any further, though it may give you more of a sense of the power of the Gesualdo legend. If you come to Gesualdo through this film, you will be confused and bemused.

Werner Herzog is not concerned with creating a biographical or musical documentary about this fascinating figure. He deals instead with the impressions that people have of him. He interviews ordinary Italians and gets them to recount various legends about the composer that they seem, more or less, to believe.

We are taken to visit the ruin that was Gesualdo's castle, and are met by the caretaker. He shows us into the castle, where he claims to work alone because the ruin is cursed. Suddenly there is an awful droning of bagpipes. There, amid the rubble is a lone piper, playing a banal two bar phrase of music over and over again into the cracks in the walls. He continues for almost two full minutes. Why? To prevent Gesualdo's ghost from escaping. Perhaps he thinks the music-loving ghost will hang around if it can expect a bagpipe recital now and then. For the viewer, however, the prolonged piping is painful.

Later, again in the castle ruins, a contralto voice is heard and our handy-cam toting director turns a corner, surprises a middle-aged woman, and chases her through the wrecked rooms. Her hair has been dyed red and her black dress reveals an indecent amount of cleavage. Cornered and forced into conversation, she claims to be the reincarnation of Gesualdo's murdered wife. She is allowed to rave on camera for long enough to assert that she lives in heaven, but can be found in a box draped with red damask above the chandelier at La Scala, provided you fly up to her by helicopter. Is she a lunatic or an actor playing a lunatic? She is Milva, the Italian singer, actor and sometime collaborator of Berio's. The caretaker had mentioned a mad woman who “haunts” the castle ruin and Herzog is keen to find one, even if he has to manufacture her. He goes so far as to visit the local asylum to ask after her. Before speaking to the director of this facility he films another patient being riding a horse. Why? What has this to do with Gesualdo? Perhaps other inmates are convinced they are Gesualdo, but this poor boy is not one of them. This is exploitative and, frankly, a disgrace. 

There is also mention of Gesulado's rumoured occult experiments. A factotum at Gesualdo's summer palace retells the legend of the murders and alleges that a couple of skeletons in the crypt of the nearby San Severo chapel are the bodies of Gesualdo's wife and her lover. The skeletons are a fascinating and grotesque spectacle, their circulatory systems preserved as a web adorning the bones. But have these bodies really anything to do with Gesualdo? Herzog does not bother to find out. He certainly does not tell his audience.

We do get some actual biographical information about the composer – as opposed to myth, legend and gossip – from Gerald Place, the leader of the Gesualdo consort. Though his wry British sense of humour, spiced with a light irony and a relish for salacious details, comes across well, he looks uncomfortable speaking to the camera. He refers frequently to his notes and clears his throat repeatedly as he recounts details of the murder.

Are there any redeeming features of this film? Well, at least Herzog treats Gesualdo's music with respect. He does not lather it about as a sound-track, but saves it for featured performances at intervals throughout the film. The performances are quite good and Alan Curtis's spoken introductions and explanations of the music are helpful, if brief. 

The end of this film shows in a matter of minutes everything that is wrong with it. We return to the town of Gesualdo itself, and find ourselves at some sort of local festival. What is it for? We are not really told. Does it have anything to do with Gesualdo? Well, the booklet accompanying the DVD makes a tenuous connection. We watch some latter-day knights tilt their lances at a wooden target and finally find ourselves watching one of the squires, in period dress, reach for his bulky mobile telephone, call home and announce that he will be there soon because “the Gesualdo documentary is almost over”. He hangs up and stares into the camera. Roll credits. The booklet calls this finishing flourish “an ironic wink” from the director. It strikes me as self-serving and lazy.

The DVD case promises Werner Herzog's audio commentary on the documentary as a special feature. Having been so unimpressed by the film, I thought I owed it to the director to allow him to justify his film. Try as I might, though, I could not find this special feature. It was so cunningly hidden as to defy my every attempt to extract it, using not only my DVD player, but also my lap-top computer. To be clear, I am no novice in playing DVDs or in the use of technology. I have never had such difficulty locating a special feature on a DVD in the past. There are three possible conclusions: the promised special feature was not on the DVD I was sent for review, the disc was defective, or the interface is the opposite of user-friendly.

Doubtless fans of this director will be seething with contempt for my inability to appreciate his art. But there is a difference between art and artifice, and this coy parody of a documentary is definitely the latter. If you like mawkish art films that masquerade as documentaries and flaunt the cleverness of their creators, by all means go ahead and buy this disc. If you have any interest in the composer, buy yourself a couple CDs with decent liner notes – for example, the King's Singers disc of sacred music on Signum 048 or La Veneziana's recording of the fourth book of madrigals on Glossa 920907 – and leave this DVD well alone. 

Tim Perry 

Link to article:
Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, Count of Conza by Len Mullenger  


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