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2.2.05

Schnittke's Gesualdo in Vienna

I am a big fan of Alfred Schnittke's music, especially his opera Life with an Idiot. I am not really familiar with his opera Gesualdo (1995), on the life of the virtuoso madrigalist Carlo Gesualdo, which has recently been revived at the Vienna Staatsoper. The new production, directed by Cesare Lievi and conducted by Jun Märkl, premiered on December 22, 2004, and concluded on January 2, 2005. On December 27, 2004, a member of the OPERA-L mailing list, Ruth C. Jacobs, posted some comments to that list about seeing the production:

The opera is set in seven scenes, with a prolog and epilog in Latin sung a capella by a chorus, both on and offstage. There are some differences between the libretto as written and this performance, i.e. Carlo kills the lovers himself, rather than his hunting friends killing them, and the child of Maria and Fabrizio is portrayed as a doll on a huge red swing (Gesualdo is supposed to swing the child to death and this is taken literally at the end when the servant who saved the child swings it, and then as Carlo grows madder and madder, and the music becomes more and more intense, two, then three, then six doll children appear, swinging higher and higher, the child's cries portrayed by what sounds like a synthesizer in the orchestra, the endless heartbeats drumming -- are they Carlo's or the child's? In the epilog, the madrigalists who opened the opera return, singing once again Latin a capella, bringing a huge white cloth over the steps, and eventually over the entire stage, as in the first scene. The whole stage is a shroud, and the music gradually fades away.
Wilhelm Sinkovicz wrote a review (Staatsoper: Neuer Versuch mit dem Kindsmord [State Opera: new attempt at infanticide], December 24, 2004) for Die Presse. He singles out conductor Jun Märkl for having carefully rehearsed the work, although the music, he says,
avoids triadic harmony, leading to fatiguing clusters of seconds and dissonaces and, above all, tritone leaps. [...] The State Opera may again point to the fact that it has supported one of the most discussed composers of the last century. Whether the work will ever be produced again remains questionable. Interested customers should make a trip to the Staatoper.
In another review (Düst'rer die Glocken nie klingen, December 24, 2004) for the Wiener Zeitung, Christoph Irrgeher also praises the conductor, who navigates the challenges of the late Schnittke style, pronounced in the "compact scene structure" and the "undramatic, cloudy cluster chords." Dominik Troger, in his review (Gesualdo ist kein Vorbild für das Lösen von Ehekrisen (Opera in Wien, December 26, 2004), says that his impression of the opera from its 1995 premiere was essentially confirmed: only the last 20 to 25 minutes are worthwhile as staged drama. There is also this unsigned review (Finstere Operngestalt der unvollendeten Moderne [Dark operawork of the unfinished modern], December 27, 2004) in Der Standard. The only other review in English I could find was Larry L. Lash, Schnittke's Gesualdo at the Wiener Staatsoper (London Financial Times, December 27, 2004):
In a house where world premieres are rare and successful ones even rarer, I suspect the Vienna State Opera feels it must produce at least one recently composed, audience-alienating work each season, so as to say “we tried”, with respect to promoting contemporary music. To this end, George Enescu's Oedipe was revived last winter in a brilliant production, magnificently sung (it returns in April 2005). This year, we have the first reprise of Alfred Schnittke's Gesualdo since its world premiere in 1995, three years before the composer's death. Many of the audience exercised a proclivity denied to critics: simply to leave the theatre at the interval and go and do something productive or pleasant, such as change the cat litter box. [...] Schnittke wrote a lot of interesting, groundbreaking music. But Gesualdo should be reserved for bored musicologists with time on their hands.
Bored musicologist, time on my hands. Wait a minute! I think he's talking about me. That may be why I actually watched the video on this page, which has about a minute of excerpts from the opera.

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