October 13, 2010 5:36 pm

Gesualdo, Zurich Opera

A gripping new opera with a great libretto that sounds beautiful

Even in his own time, the Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo was at least as famous for murder as he was for music. His spectacularly bloody slaughter of his wife with her lover has always exercised a grisly fascination, just as his wildly adventurous harmonies have captivated listeners.

History might have forgotten Gesualdo’s harmonic excesses had Stravinsky not been intrigued by the Italian prince’s music. Schnittke and Sciarrino wrote operas about the man. With Marc-André Dalbavie’s Gesualdo, given its world premiere last Sunday, the Zurich Opera has taken memory a step further.

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Gesualdo is a rare thing – a gripping new opera with a great libretto that sounds beautiful. This is a score you could listen to again and again, complex and beguiling. Dalbavie’s librettist, Richard Millet, concentrates on the last years of his life. He keeps his family imprisoned in his Venosa castle, around which he has felled all the trees to afford a clear view. His second marriage is on the rocks, his son is dying, and neither regular whipping nor a steamy affair with the maidservant bring relief from his inner torment.

Millet’s libretto echoes the subtle ambiguities of Maurice Maeterlinck, just as Dalbavie’s music recalls Debussy. This is Pelléas et Mélisande for the 21st century, full of poetry, danger and yearning. Millet’s oblique words allow him to be narrative without ever becoming trite. Dalbavie’s score, though marinated liberally in Gesualdo quotations, frequently tonal and unashamedly pictorial, never loses its dreamlike sophistication. He orchestrates deftly and writes beautifully for voices.

In the title role, tailored to his voice, Rod Gilfry gives a compelling portrait of a broken man, despotic yet brilliant. His antipode is Hélène Couture, shimmeringly vital as the maidservant, all that the embittered Eleonora (Liliana Nikiteanu) is not. The rest of the cast is impressive.

Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier have created a staging that harmonises utterly with Dalbavie’s score, aided by like-minded designers. We see renaissance ruffs and a modern piano, halberds and video projections, a calculated balance of lavish anachronism. Gesualdo has been feted by its Zurich audience. Let us hope it travels. (

5 star rating
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