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Bo HOLTEN (b. 1948)
Gesualdo Shadows, a modern baroque opera in three acts
Libretto: Eva Sommestad Holten
Madrigals: Carlo Gesualdo
Gert Henning-Jensen (tenor): Carlo Gesualdo, Tor Lind (baritone): Shadow, Guideo Paevatalu (bass): Duke Alfonso of Ferrara, Hanna Kappelin (soprano): Maria d’Avalos, Ann-Christin Wesser Ingels (soprano): Léonora d’Este, Anders Jakobsoon (bass): Fontanelli
Musica Ficta (madrigal ensemble), Concerto Copenhagen / Bo Holten
Deda Cristina Colonna (Staging), Cubus Film (Video direction)
rec. live 4th November 2016, The Funen Opera, Odense, Denmark
NTSC 16:9, DTS 5.0 and PCM stereo
DACAPO 2.110428 DVD [114 mins]

The Danish conductor and composer Bo Holten has long been fascinated by Carlo Gesualdo. Gesualdo was one of Renaissance music’s more radical figures, and one whose eventful life inspired many operas before Holten’s own Gesualdo Shadows. Eva Sommestad Holten's English libretto takes us on a chronological journey through Gesualdo’s life. Each act focuses on a key incident in different locations of his world. Act One goes from his boyhood (when his part is briefly played by a puppet) up to the notorious murder of his first wife and her lover in Naples in 1590. Act Two takes us to the Ferrara of his fruitful musical developments and his (also unhappy) second marriage, and Act Three to his castle in the town of Gesualdo for his decline and death in c. 1613. The libretto also features a figure called Shadow, who haunts Gesualdo, partly assuming the role of a real character but also serving as his avatar and tormented conscience. This device permits the opera to reveal much about Gesualdo’s inner world and sufferings.

The composer describes the result as a ‘modern baroque opera’. He tells us in the DVD booklet how he turned that oxymoron into a real theatre piece. First, he uses a lot of Gesualdo’s own music: two motets from the Cantiones Sacrae and Tenebrae Responsories, and seven of his madrigals mostly from books 4 and 6. These are sung by an onstage madrigal group, not transcribed or updated in any way. In fact, that madrigal group are nearly omnipresent and its members also take smaller roles in the drama. (Even the composer-conductor is required in Act Two to get up from his desk to take a tiny role without losing a beat.)

Second, the ten band musicians play instruments from the early baroque, including a continuo group with quite a variety of sounds, much of whose music we are told is improvised around the figured bass Holten provides. The various dance elements in the score are delightfully realised. Even when playing music that is baroque-derived or more straightforwardly contemporary, the effect is always satisfying, so skilfully do the old and new elements dovetail. The same is true of the vocal lines, especially when the character of Gesualdo himself has a tenor line superimposed on the performance of one of his own madrigals.

Gert Henning-Jensen is generally convincing in the lead tenor role of Carlo Gesualdo himself; the basic timbre is attractive, and the vocal manner and acting are adjusted as needed to the various moods of a complicated character. Tor Lind’s sonorous baritone is suitably insinuating in the role (or roles) of Shadow, and he is excellent in his often sinister interactions with Gesualdo. The other five lead roles have no weak link, and the madrigal singing of Musica Ficta founded by their conductor Bo Holten in 1996 – is excellent and idiomatic, as is the playing of Concerto Copenhagen.

The costumes and stage setting (by the librettist) are mostly plain, little more than a dark space with little scenery and only a few props. The lighting keeps the images generally as dark as Gesualdo’s troubled soul, which is perhaps the point. Holten and the instrumentalists are also on stage, and frequently in shot. In fact, the production does not look as if it needs the resources of an opera house to put it on, but could tour anywhere with space for the players, some black drapes and a raised platform. There are thus few scenic delights to distract from the many musical ones, or from the gradually intensifying and eventually tragic drama. Holten remarks: “I think it unlikely he died a happy man”. He calls his score “a concoction of many styles… and quotes from the oddest sources”, but it all works well in consort to serve the fascinating drama. You do not have to be an enthusiast for Gesualdo or even Renaissance madrigals to enjoy this excellent work, but it might end up converting you to both.

The filming is more than acceptable. The editor ensures that the screen is filled with the right images, from intimate close-up to wider shots, to tell this poignant story. The stereo and multi-channel sound options are both good. There are no extras on the DVD but the booklet has both the composer and the librettist themselves telling us all we need to know of the background to the work.

The repertoire holds a number of operas about Renaissance artists, such Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, and (most relevant) Pfitzner’s Palestrina. No-one can say whether Holten’s Gesualdo Shadows will join their number, but its extensive use of the subject’s own extraordinary music, and the musical conventions of the era, must be unique – and is highly effective. If it is your introduction to Gesualdo’s character and world, then you might want to explore both further with Werner Herzog’s documentary 1995 film “Death for Five Voices” on Arthaus Musik.

Roy Westbrook

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