(reviewed at the Cambridge Junction on 20 May)
Something billed as a polyphonic crime drama is bound to be somewhat out of the mainstream. if we had been back in the late 1960s or in the 70s, you might have felt tempted to classify it as a happening. There were a lot of these around then, usually in non-theatre venues, and the experience tended to be immersive.That holds true for this I Fagiolini production.
Betrayal retells the horrific climax to the murder of his faithless wife and her lover by the Prince of Venosa (Carlo Gesualdo) in 1590. Gesualdo had previously experimented with harmonies and polyphony in madrigal format; later he turned amost exclusively to religious music.
Shepherded into a dim, black-floored and -ceilinged space by quasi police officers, we are allowed to wander round the chalk outlines of the victims and examine, without touching anything, pin-boards and some artefacts. Then the a cappella singing from the six singers – who have been mingling with the audience – breaks in.
Each singer is partnered with a dancer; the soprano and two mezzos do not always enact the female roles; the same is true of the tenor, the baritone and the bass. John La Bouchardière’s choreography is expansive as it melds lyricism with violence (the actual killing seems to have been a messy, not to say downright sadistic, affair).
Those chalk outlines and artefacts now begin to make sense, even if you’re not familiar with the background story. We in the audience wander between the performing couples with increasing wonder at musical director Robert Hollingworth’s long-distance control of his singers, who at times are prone on the ground or active in the dance element.
In his 1976 play Music to Murder By, David Pownall wrote a drama about Gesualdo and his tortured, fractured personal, spiritual and creative life. If the title hadn’t already been used, I Fagiolini might have selected it, having rejected Guilt as too specific and somewhat misleading.
Anyone who has read any Italian history of the period, let alone watched Jacobean drama, will know that Gesualdo was not unique in his revenge, including the mutilation of his wife’s body. He is, however, unique in his compositions. Though we should never forget that Monteverdi was contemporarily working his own magic with harmony and structure.
Betrayal is at the Cambridge Junction as part of the Cambridge Early Music Festival until 24 May.