Gesualdo: A film by Werner Herzog

COMPOSERS: Gesualdo
LABELS: Arthaus Music
ALBUM TITLE: Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices
WORKS: A film by Werner Herzog
PERFORMER: Il Complesso Barocco/Alan Curtis; Gesualdo Consort of London/Gerald Place
CATALOGUE NO: 012 055 (NTSC system; PCM stereo; 16:9 picture format)
It must have been the 400th anniversary of Gesualdo’s murder of his wife, Maria d’Avalos, that prompted so much interest in him at the close of the 20th century. Alfred Schnittke wrote an opera about him then, and in 1995 Werner Herzog produced this rather gothic film for ZDF, Germany’s national television.

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Is this a responsible biographical account of Gesualdo? No, because it fails to show anything of Ferrara where he spent the most important years of his musical development. Is it a rounded musical presentation? Again no. In the entire hour we hear only four short madrigals and a motet, sung adequately but no more, and divided between Il Complesso Barocco and the Gesualdo Consort of London – the latter being better than the former. Moreover we are told that we only have music composed by Gesualdo from after he murdered his wife, which is not true. But is it a compelling film in the Herzogian manner? Well, Gesualdo was an eccentric with freakish dreams, inhabiting desolate places (the castle in the village of Gesualdo), and tortured by eroticism (the Italian actress Milva provides a spectacular bosomy cameo as the ghost of Maria d’Avalos) – so perfect Herzog territory, à la Fitzcarraldo. But this small-scale, patchy effort, even with its vignettes of ‘everyday folk’, amounts to little more than a curio. Anthony Pryer