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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, Count of Conza by Len