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A CurtainUp Review
Death For Five Voices
By Charles Wright
Mills and Reichel have chosen as their subject real figures from Renaissance history. Don Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613), Prince of Venosa, perpetrator of the crime, was a prolific composer of secular and liturgical music (as well as being one of the wealthiest citizens in the Kingdom of Naples). The murder victims are Gesualdo's beautiful wife, Donna Maria d'Avalos, and her lover, a famously handsome man named Don Fabrizio Carafa.
Gesualdo's musical works were admired and studied by Stravinsky and Aldous Huxley, among other stalwarts of Modernism. But unlike his English contemporary William Byrd, he has never become a household name among aficionados of early music. Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker, characterizes Gesualdo as "one of the most complexly imaginative composers of the late Renaissance, indeed of all musical history." In Ross's assessment, Gesualdo stretched the "rules of harmony to a degree that remained unmatched until the advent of Wagner."
The motives of the historical figures in the double-murder case (and, indeed, most facts about those figures) are unknowable due to the passage of time and, perhaps more significant, the privilege of secrecy available to nobles in the Neapolitan social-caste system. Gesualdo was never charged with the crime or even openly accused of it. His guilt, however, has not been seriously questioned.
Death for Five Voices shares its title with a 1995 television documentary by Werner Herzog, though there's nothing in the playbill or promotional materials distributed by the producers to suggest that the two are connected. The musical, directed by Reichel, is a straightforward saga of jealousy and revenge, with a fillip of redemption at the end. The authors have set it in an anachronistically democratic realm in which masters are chummy and confidential with their servants and an archbishop (Jeff Williams) hears confessions of another man's valet (Ryan Bauer-Walsh).
Carlo (Nathan Gardner), who inherits the Gesualdo family title upon the death of his older brother, is a mama's boy, aching to resist, yet still at the mercy of, his controlling mother Girolama (Meghan McGeary).
Keenly conscious of her position as widow of a prince and niece of a pope, Girolama wants to make a match for her son that will not merely perpetuate the male line but improve the family's social status. Despite a lot of oedipal tension, Carlo rejoices when Girolama snags as his bride the well-born Maria (Manna Nichols), whom he idolizes.
The marriage starts off with promise: Maria is fond of her groom and pleased to be chatelaine of a deluxe establishment located in the heart of Naples. Carlo finds Maria an effective muse for his madrigal-writing. But she's a hot-blooded widow, and it's soon clear she expects more than her boyish groom can deliver.
With Carlo distracted by musical ambition, as well as by the busy calendar of the hunting season, Maria succumbs to the seductive Fabrizio (Nicholas Rodriguez), a friend of the Gesualdo family who's in Naples on diplomatic business as frequently as possible. Under passion's sway, the lovers become incautious; rumors spread; and Carlo gets suspicious.
In tailoring this love triangle to the musical stage, Mills and Reichel have sweetened and sanitized what likely was a cold-blooded honor killing. The musical's balletic, almost slow-motion depiction of the murder in Maria's bedroom is wildly inconsistent with the official report of the Neapolitan committee of inquiry. The committee's report describes barbarous mutilation of the victims and extravagant collateral damage at the crime scene, suggesting that the killer or killers acted in a relentless frenzy. (Mills, Reichel, and costume designer Sidney Shannon ignore another tantalizing detail of the report: Don Fabrizio's corpse was supposedly clad in only a woman's negligee of black silk with fringe.)
The musical's Carlo is a conscientious artist and, as a lover, pure in heart; but music and wife must compete for his attention and ardor. According to the scant historical record, the real Gesualdo was a considerably more complicated and dark-spirited fellow. (His household ostensibly included several young men whose job it was to flagellate the master on those frequent occasions when he was inclined to be flagellated).
Before the murder, the musical's Carlo is adamant about writing only secular compositions. Afterwards, responding to pressure from his uncle the archbishop (who aspires to ever higher rungs on the ecclesiastical ladder), Carlo finds a new life, serving God and Church (and Uncle Alfonso's ambitions), through liturgical music.
Prospect Theater Company has given Death for Five Voices a solid, if uninspired, production. The seven singing actors handle both the polyphonic choral sections and their solo parts with operatic aplomb. (The choral passages are far and away the most engaging aspect of the production.)
Music director Max Mamon conducts the singers adroitly and draws an impressively full-bodied sound from the production's small combo (Suzanne Davies on violin, Brian Sanders on cello, and Zac Selissen on guitar). Mamon himself negotiates the complex piano score with feeling and verve.
Reichel, in her capacity as stage director, and fight choreographer Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum utilize the modest playing space of the Sheen Center's black-box auditorium effectively, moving the seven actors about in such a way as to make the production seem more ample than it is. Scenic designer Ann Bartek supports their efforts with a unit set that, thanks to the most minor of modifications, suggests a variety of locations. Bartek also employs a few moving pieces (most notably an elegant bed) that never get in the way of the production's fluidity.
The producers' advance publicity about Death for Five Voices makes no secret of the fact that this show is about a double murder or that Don Carlo Gesualdo is the murderer. The mystery of this production is why the authors have elected to depict in relatively anemic terms events that, in reality, outstripped in savagery and bloodthirstiness the revenge tragedies written by Gesualdo's contemporaries in Shakespearean England.