Gesualdo · Shadows – a modern Baroque opera
Gesualdo · Shadows – a modern Baroque opera
The conductor and composer Bo Holten has long been fascinated by Carlo Gesualdo – an Italian prince and one of the most extreme composers of the Late Renaissance, whose dramatic life and bitter fate make up the plot in Holten’s and librettist Eva Sommestad Holten’s ‘modern baroque opera’ Gesualdo · Shadows. Reflecting our own time, this is a drama of a great artist lost between outward duties and inner fragility: from a passionate youth to an old age of mysticism, violence and melancholy. Gesualdo’s own madrigals, fused into the score, contribute to a thrilling universe of pain and beauty.
by Bo Holten
Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613) was not only one of the most important – and most extreme – composers of the Late Renaissance; he was also a neurotic, experimental, ‘modern’ personality, who among other things dramatically took the life of his unfaithful wife and her lover. As a prince he could compose exactly what suited him and did so. This gave his music a different, wilder face than that of his contemporaries.
In the course of the past fifty years Gesualdo has become an icon of musical life. From great fame in his own time until gradual oblivion a century after his death, the rediscovery of his music has given it incomparable power and great influence on the music of today. Stravinsky in particular, perhaps the most important composer of the twentieth century, who rediscovered Gesualdo, never lost sight of him in his works, and wrote and spoke about him for many years.
Gesualdo’s dramatic life and bitter fate were inextricably bound up with the colourful, torn and profoundly despairing music he produced; indeed, one is tempted to call it overwrought. But how can a Renaissance prince have become an avant-garde composer? As the second son in the princely succession and a nephew of the famous Bishop Carlo Borromeo, Gesualdo was an obvious candidate for a career in the church when his elder brother was to succeed to the principality. But his brother died young and left Gesualdo with the official duties; unfortunately, since the boy was in fact exclusively interested in music.
When Gesualdo was twenty, a marriage was arranged for him with Maria d’Avalos from Naples. Maria was a much-coveted match, and an alliance between the Gesualdo and d’Avalos families was considered a powerful advantage. However, Maria embarked on an affair lasting several years with the young Duke Fabrizio Carafa. When this was revealed, it was Gesualdo’s aristocratic duty to avenge it with murder. A hired assassin murdered Carafa, while Gesualdo killed his wife with his own hands. Often this murder, not his music, has been viewed as the basis for Gesualdo’s fame; but in fact there was nothing extraordinary about this action, which would have been a necessary evil for any nobleman of the time – quite apart from the passion with which Gesualdo carried out the murder.
Gesualdo’s second marriage did not end in the same bestial manner; but this relationship – now with Leonora d’Este from Ferrara – was by no means happy either. On the other hand, Gesualdo’s time in Ferrara and his encounter with the latest musical currents led to a huge intensification of his work. It was in these years – 1594-97 – that Gesualdo, inspired by the fertile environment in Ferrara, composed his radical fourth, fifth and sixth books of madrigals. It is these works which have primarily led to his status as a composer of the first rank.
As early as 1596 he formed a private vocal ensemble based at his castle in the town of Gesualdo, 100 km east of Naples; a milieu of singers and composers where all the newest experiments with chromaticism could be tried out, and where composers could vie with one another to be the most sophisticated.
Gesualdo’s final years were darkened by his unstable state of mind and a series of trying ailments. Both his children died before he did, and his relationship with his wife was extremely unpleasant for both. Only music bore him up. I think it unlikely he died a happy man – suffering was his constant companion, even in death.
On the making of GESUALDO · SHADOWS by Bo Holten
When the opportunity to write an opera about Gesualdo arose, I immediately said yes for many reasons. Not only had I for decades performed and been sincerely interested in his music, I had of course also read the two important books by Glenn Watkins on the subject, as well as numerous other writings, and realised that the life of this composer probably must have been one of the most eventful composer destinies in music history, making it an evident subject for the stage.
My initial thoughts were always dominated by involving quite a lot of the composer’s own music in the score, but how was this to be done without having quotes from his works played by modern symphony orchestra instruments and thus sounding like a kind of renaissance kitsch? It struck me that it would be essential to create a genuine Gesualdian feel through having a madrigal group, well versed in this style, present on stage and at hand practically all the time in the opera. These madrigal singers, we later found out, could then also take all the smaller parts in the cast, all of them thus having double roles.
The leading parts, Gesualdo, Maria d’Avalos, duke Alfonso II and others were to be sung by “normal” opera singers trained in 19th-century opera style. Could these entirely different ways of singing work together? (This was really one of my main worries before the performances!). But in the end, no one ever mentioned that two very different styles of singing were part of this opera – no one really noticed, least of all the newspaper reviewers.
How about the orchestra? Quite soon I realised that modern instruments wouldn’t do. Gesualdo of course never wrote anything for orchestra, but by forming a band of ten musicians playing early-baroque instruments I would try to construct a sound that Gesualdo might have composed for had he had the opportunity. But of course, it would be silly to write for a normal baroque orchestra like Monteverdi’s Orfeo-orchestra, just achieving the “usual early sound”. It had to be Gesualdo-odd, so apart from a quintet of solo strings, the band consists of an oboe and two late-renaissance trombones (sackbutts). And of course, a continuo group consisting of the cello and the violone as well as a keyboard player on the organ and the harpsichord, and a lute player also playing theorbo and baroque guitar. This created a wide variety of sounds from the continuo group, which would be needed in the recitatives, which of course also should be a part of a real baroque opera.
So suddenly I discovered that I was composing a “modern baroque opera”. Trying to take advantage of 400 years of opera experiences and at the same time retain the flavour of a genuine early-baroque opera from Gesualdo’s time.
In order to give the continuo players the right feeling here, it then seemed necessary not to lock them into completely determined notation, but instead to write the whole opera with figured bass. So, composing the piece, the continuo group was constantly written with a bass line provided with (sometimes many and complicated) numbers, and in performance it was deeply gratifying for me to realise that these gifted continuo players created a lot of new and exciting details in every single performance. In the end it was possible to recreate the freedom and openness of a real baroque score (without sounding too baroque-mimicking, which I wanted very much to avoid).
So the musical language of the opera became a concoction of many styles (among them recitatives in Gesualdo style!) and quotes from the oddest sources. In the end no one was able to detect which music I had composed and which music came from Gesualdo or from other sources. In many cases several of these options were actually being realised at the same time.
The drama of Gesualdo’s troubled life is of course the main focus of the opera. His life is, quite traditionally, told in chronological order with each of the three acts positioned at key Gesualdo locations: the first act up to the murder in Naples 1590, the second act in Ferrara c. 1595, and the third act in the castle in Gesualdo town c. 1613. The libretto takes us through many of Gesualdo’s fascinations and (especially) hardships and tries to explain how it came about that Gesualdo ended up composing some of the weirdest and most interesting music ever written; how he managed to distil his neurotic sensibility into trembling musical breakdowns, let alone into exalted deliriums of joy, pain and sex in inseparable ruminations and climaxes, always terminating in some kind of hopeless despair.
In order to express this in full, my excellent librettist, Eva Sommestad Holten, invented an imaginary figure, Shadow, somehow emulating Nick Shadow in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, but Gesualdo’s shadow in our opera is more elusive: he can be many persons, including Gesualdo’s own bad (or good) conscience, Shadow can be Gesualdo’s assistant Scipione Stella (who was also a composer), and not least Shadow is the heavy burden that was Gesualdo’s uncle, Carlo Borromeo. Gesualdo was named after Borromeo, his mother’s brother, bishop of Milano and cardinal, the chief ideologist of the Counter Reformation as well as the leading spirit of the Council of Trent – an extremely important figure in Italian history – he even became a saint while Gesualdo was still alive. Shadow keeps haunting Gesualdo and gives us insights into his deepest emotions, and gives us the reasons for his actions, perhaps?
The madrigal group on stage gives us a fair share of Gesualdo’s own music in its most original states, as well as taking on other roles, and the conductor of the orchestra turns out, in the second act, to be no less than Luzzasco Luzzaschi, the chief court composer at Ferrara. Everything is clearly pictured, but the general feeling is palpably double-bottomed. Are we seeing and hearing the truth, or is this all just taking place within the composer’s troubled head?
Madrigals by Carlo Gesualdo featured in the opera
Meraviglia d’amore 3rd book of madrigals
Non mi toglia 2nd book
(Invan dunque, o crudele) 4th book
Questa crudele e pia 4th book
Beltà poi che t’assenti 6th book
Caligaverunt oculi mei Tenebrae Responsories
Già piansi nel dolore 6th book
O vos omnes Cantiones sacrae
(Ardo per te, mio bene) 6th book
ACT 1 NAPLES — Carlo Gesualdo, named after his uncle Bishop and Cardinal Carlo Borromeo, is in childhood sent to a Jesuit school in Rome to embark on a church career in the footsteps of his famous relative. When his older brother dies he is called home, being the eldest surviving son now to become Prince of Venosa. He is also reunited with the vivid musical scene of Naples and his true passion – music. As succession needs to be secured, Carlo in haste has to marry his cousin Maria d’Avalos, who already twice widowed has proved her fertility. Let down by several arranged marriages, she looks upon an alliance with her younger cousin and former playmate as a possibility for a marriage of friendship and freedom. But Carlo is seriously in love. The wedding is a manifestation of the nobility of Naples, headed by the Spanish Viceroy. While Carlo’s awkwardness and lack of attention displeases Maria, she delights in the elegant flirting of her former brother-in-law Fabrizio Carafa. Carlo Gesualdo is now for the first time facing his inner Shadow, who follows and harasses him. Maria accuses Carlo of putting herself second to his music and insists on finally being allowed to enjoy life. At a late-night ball Carlo looks desperately for Maria, and as his suspicion that she betrays him is confirmed he breaks down, trapped between his passion for Maria and an inner chaos of guilt and duty. One late evening outside Maria’s bedroom Carlo surprises her chambermaid Laura and the servant Bardotti. Carlo is supposed to be out hunting. Followed by his Shadow he now secretly listens to his wife and her lover, for thereafter to kill them assisted by a hired assassin. The next morning the examining magistrate of the Vicaria arrives. Gesualdo with his Shadow stands in a void and a vacuum of life – What had happened?
ACT 2 FERRARA — Four years later Carlo arrives at Ferrara to marry Leonora d’Este, the niece of Duke Alfonso II. While highly aware of the previous events, she piously undertakes the duty to love him. Carlo is more interested in the musical magnificence of Ferrara and he is, as intended, impressed by Duke Alfonso’s shows and displays. The Duke does not conceal that the purpose of the marriage is having Carlo, through one more cardinal uncle, Alfonso Gesualdo, to influence the Roman Curia and the Pope, who due to the Duke having no male heir, at his death can return Ferrara to the Papal States. Carlo is monitored and spied upon by Duke Alfonso’s right-hand man, Fontanelli, who reports on his ever more frenzied and wayward behaviour towards his musician colleagues and his new wife. Duke Alfonso is attracted by Carlo’s melancholy and talent but ends up expelling him without his wife from the court and from Ferrara – which means Carlo losing his musical paradise.
ACT 3 GESUALDO — Carlo Gesualdo has returned to the town of Gesualdo and his castle, over years more and more depressed, ill and weakened. He seeks help in witchcraft and from his now deceased and recently canonized uncle Borromeo. The visibly insane Carlo is tormented by demons and fears, which he relieves with pain and music. His wife Leonora unexpectedly appears in Gesualdo in the company of Fontanelli. She brings a relic of St. Carlo Borromeo – a papal shoe. Her purpose is to replace the amulets and other witchcraft that according to her beliefs have caused all the misfortune. When Carlo learns that Leonora on top of this has taken legal action accusing him of witchcraft, he shows his guests the door. His mind is relieved as he tries to collect and publish his music. But as he listens to his own chords, he is once more seized by despair. He looks back on a life characterized by struggle and failure. Not even the beauty of music, only the cold of death, can now relieve the pain of life. Carlo Gesualdo dies. Only the shadow is still there.
Eva Sommestad Holten
THREE ACTS – THREE LOCATIONS
Act 1 in Naples — The young Gesualdo lives in Naples, by then the largest city in Europe and controlled from Spain through a powerful Viceroy. The remarkable location can still be enjoyed from the cliff above Naples, with the Gulf and the Vesuvius as a backdrop and below the long narrow streets that cut through the old city to form a “split”, the Spaccanapoli, flanked by the now so decayed noble palaces. The palazzo on the Piazza San Domenico, where Gesualdo murdered his wife, is still there.
Act 2 in Ferrara — In the 1590s, Ferrara, ruled since the 1300s by the d’Este family, was experiencing one of the most spectacular flowerings in European cultural history. This was just before the whole duchy had to be returned to the Papal States, due to Duke Alfonso not having a male heir. In Ferrara Carlo Gesualdo experienced a musical culture second to none, and this challenged him, during a few intense years, to compose all his important madrigals.
Act 3 in Gesualdo — Carlo spent his last years increasingly ill at his own castle in Gesualdo, where he set out to renew both castle and town in a modern Renaissance style. However, like Duke Alfonso in Ferrara, he was to die without an heir – his children died before he did. The town remains as a dormant Renaissance treasure, now steadily more conscious of its great son.
Eva Sommestad Holten