Betrayal: A Polyphonic Crime Drama

I Fagiolini
Village Underground. 13 May 2015

It’s not often that I find myself standing in a long queue outside a venue controlled by bouncers. But this was, after all, an I Fagiolini event (commissioned by the Barbican), and the little beans had come up with yet another of their spectaculars. The venue was Village Underground, a performance and arts venue created out of a derelict railway viaduct and adjoining warehouse. The bouncers eventually let us in, after we had shown the ‘Crime Scene Inspection Permit’ we had been told to bring with us. We were immediately shrouded in thick smoke, the little blue-light torches were had been given not being a great deal of help. In the murk, we managed to find a series of display boards showing an enigmatic sequence of photos and poetic texts, all linked by lines. Several chalked body outlines could be seen on the floor, close to various seemingly random objects that had been grouped near the display boards. The investigation permit began to make sense. As the gloomy room filled up with people it became harder to move about, an issue that became more serious when the singers and dancers joined the scene.

After about 15 minutes of wandering about, and as with The Full Monteverdi 10 years ago, the start of the singing was spellbinding – a lone voice suddenly appearing from the midst of the gloom, followed by another, until five voices were singing in perfect, but complex, harmony. This was Gesualdo’s Hei mihi, Domine (‘Woe is me, O Lord, for I have sinned so much … Have mercy on me’), with text from a service for the Dead. What had he done to sound so gloomy? There followed a series of madrigals reflecting the pains and torment of love, starting with Dolce spirto d’amore (‘Love’s sweet spirit’), with four of the five voices all entering at the same time, perfectly together. The words of Tu m’uccidi, o crudele (‘You are killing me, cruel one, wicked murderer of love’), with its harmonic and melodic twists and turns, began to make things a little clearer.

Billed as ‘an immersive dramatisation of intense and unsettling music’ this was director John La Bouchardière’s investigation into the background to Gesualdo’s brutal murder of his wife and her lover after Gesuldo had arranged to catch them in flagrante delicto. Research by a forensic psychiatrist suggests that Gesualdo was possibly re-enacting childhood betrayal. His own life was spared on the grounds that he was a Prince, but the rest of his life seems to have been spent in a state of remorse. A series of five or six little scenes were acted out between the singers and actors in different parts of the crowded space, but it was only ever possible to see, at best, two of them at the same time. So there was no chance of anybody following the plot. Those who knew nothing about Gesualdo would have come away pretty bemused by what had actually happened in his life. Those who knew the Gesualdo story would have been similarly bemused about how all that we knew fitted into what we could actually see.

I could see where the theatrical element was coming from and, similarly, where the musical element was coming from. But they were coming from completely different directions and were very far from meeting anywhere near the middle. As the event progressed, and the inability to actually see much of the action, the highlight was clearly going to be the extraordinary ability of six singers to sung so beautifully and so well in consort, in tune, and in time, when they couldn’t see each other and were placed some distance apart. They all had complex acting roles to play out as well. They were accompanied by six dancers, demonstration movements as complex as Gesualdi’s harmonic twists and turns.

The singers were Kirsty Hopkins (soprano), Ciara Hendrick & Martha Lorinan (mezzos), Matthew Long (tenor), Greg Skidmore (baritone) and Jimmy Holliday (bass). Dancers were Eleesha Drennan, Merry Holden, Luke Murphy, Simon Palmer, Lukasz Przytarski and  Rebecca Rosier. An excellent team. A short tour takes the show on to Cambridge and a Salisbury car park. As with The Full Monteverdi, there is a lot of potential in this production, but it does needs some radical re-thinking to make it more accessible to its audience.

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