American Record Guide
, September 2010
Film director Werner Herzog (b. 1942) demonstrates his fascination with the life and music of Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613) in this film, an exemplar of the truism “truth is stranger than fiction”. Distilled through many lenses and 400 years of accumulated rumor, no one knows the “truth” about Gesualdo. Certainly no one would believe his life story if presented as a work of fiction.
When the historical story-line is as rich as Gesualdo’s—a tale of vast wealth, high social status, pre-meditated double murder, adultery, infanticide, and mental illness—the temptation to sensationalize is irresistible. Macabre and repugnant details are not shown on screen, but are described from different sources.
Filmed on location in several places in Italy, the scenes vary widely, from the spectacular (a sunburst behind a boy dressed as an angel, suspended very high in the air to reenact the eternal battle of good and evil) to the historically particular (a cook and his wife jointly describe recreating recipes from Gesualdo’s staggeringly lavish wedding feast, referring repeatedly to him as the devil) to the downright peculiar (an interview with a woman who believes she is the reincarnation of Gesualdo’s murdered wife, Maria d’Avalos).
We have many story-tellers here, and most do emphasize the more sensational and lurid parts of the story, but we also have a good amount of music as well as insights from modern music-makers. The most unexpected and unfamiliar music in the film has a family connection to the tale: its composer is a 20th-Century princely descendent of Maria d’Avalos. Living in the family’s palazzo and making plans to organize and display its archives, which include the bed where Maria and her lover were murdered, Principe d’Avalos has written an opera based on his ancestor’s story.
As for Gesualdo’s own music, apart from fragments sung by “Maria d’Avalos” and described by her as eerie songs Gesualdo wrote as he neared death, the film includes complete performances of four madrigals (three from Book 6 and one from Book 3) and a passage from the Tenebrae. The performances, by Il Complesso Barocco (Book 6) and the Gesualdo Consort of London (Book 3 and Tenebrae) are very fine indeed, and made all the finer by additional interview footage with the ensembles’ directors, Alan Curtis and Gerald Place. Among other topics, they explain the history of the rejection and acceptance of Gesualdo’s music, demonstrate techniques used in performing the madrigals, and leave us knowing that the one certain truth in the story of Gesualdo is his music.
Other music in the soundtrack includes a folk bagpiper appeasing spirits in the derelict remains of the castle where Gesualdo spent the last 16 years of his life as a recluse, a snippet of Bolero, and some stock “horror music” to underscore suspense.
Werner Herzog is known as a cult filmmaker, and if you like his style you will like this film. Vivid visual detail resonates nicely with the story: a black cat is in the background as an off-screen bird squawks, and the death of Gesualdo’s second son is conjured up indirectly in two scenes with young boys being fitted with protective safety gear by attentive adults.
Italian dialog is expertly paraphrased in English voice-overs, and the introductory booklet contains some stills from the film. John Barker reviewed Il Complesso Barocco’s very fine recording of the complete Book 6 (N/D 1998). See also a review of Book 1, performed by Delitiae Musicae, in this issue. Note that Gesualdo’s birth year is now considered to be 1566, not 1560.