It’s a two-storey brick edifice, with heavy columns, dingy corners and low ceilings, dark and unwelcoming. What better location for a murder? So what more imaginative setting for a reinterpretation of the life and music of Carlo Gesualdo, one of the most remarkable composers of the Renaissance and arguably the most controversial musical figure of all time.
Outside the specialist world of early music, Gesualdo is probably best known for two things – his madrigals and the murder of his wife and her lover. The story has fascinated writers, playwrights and music historians, because it pulls the reader and listener so hard in two conflicting directionss – the music is often profoundly spiritual and always achingly beautiful. The murder (for which he ensured there were witnesses) was brutal beyond belief. He killed his unfaithful wife and her lover in bed together – they were shot and stabbed, and he mutilated her body after killing her.
Betrayal, described as “a polyphonic crime drama,” took this schizophrenic figure and turned the music and murder into a contemporary dance-opera-drama, with the ground floor of the carpark curtained off in black as a crime scene. There were evidence boards, chalk marks for bodies, an abandoned car with a severed hand visible, broken furniture and signs of struggles and violence. Audience members were issued with blue LED torches both to see our way in the half-light and to illuminate the action which began to enfold around us.
This was described as “immersive theatre” and rarely has that term been more appropriately used. We were, literally, in the action, surrounded by the singers and their dancer-lovers, drawn into their obsessions and passions, their jealousy and their guilt, their pleading and their rejection. The carpark had an unexpectedly effective acoustic and the six voices wove expressively around the complex, chromatic madigrals and Tenebrae extracts.
Betrayal reunites the innovative vocal group I Fagiolini and the director John La Bouchardière, who previously collaborated on the highly successful and critically acclaimed show The Full Monteverdi.
The performance, also seen in outdoor locations in London and Cambridge, fuses six virtuoso solo singers with six contemporary dancers, exploring Gesualdo’s explosive emotions of grief, guilt, jealousy, passion and anger. The radical harmonic experiments sound shockingly modern, more than 400 years after they were written.
If you knew I Fagiolini and Gesualdo’s music before setting foot in The Maltings, you knew you were in for a musical treat, but this pushed much further into our consciousness, forcing us to look at the effects of obsessive passion and unreasoning fury, expressed through music of agonising beauty and movement of fierce physicality.
This was another example of the exciting and adventurous programming of the 2015 festival by artistic director Toby Smith, who describes Betrayal as an example of I Fagiolini’s “desire to illuminate the drama in this music.”
Photograph, of baritone Greg Skidmore and dancer Eleesha Drennan, by Mark Allan.