IN: Reviews

A Dreary Midnight with Webs of Nitre


Nightingale Vocal Ensemble chorally and melodramatically mashed up the melancholic Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” with nine morbidly repentant and almost painfully dissonant madrigals from the 22 in Gesualdo’s Madrigali a cinque voci. Libro Sesto (Book Six). Angela Yam (ADRIFT) conceived the show, though I’m not sure she cast the approPoes fat brown rat we saw scurrying into the crypt during the reception in the courtyard of Old North Church last night. The church’s admin admitted to trapping half a dozen a week, but did not practice catch and release into the streets of the North End.

In 1590, Don Carlo Gesualdo, the Prince of Venosa famously killed his wife and her lover in a very grizzly scene. He got away with the crime of passion and spent the rest of his life ruing it in complex sacred and profane tones. In 1846, some 350 years later, the depressive Poe’s stand-in Monstresor walled-up fortune and perhaps hope. As Montresor, baritone Nathan Halbur vividly narrated (from memory) Poe’s tale of unpunished revenge in the murder of Fortunato. “May he rest in peace!”

Yam tells BMInt:

I was interested in the parallel stories of repentance between Poe’s protagonist of “The Cask of Amontillado and the composer Carlo Gesualdo. Both people committed murder in their relative youths, and the memory of their crimes haunted them for the rest of their lives. Given the setting of Poe’s short story in some unknown Italian city, Carlo Gesualdo’s Venosian roots seemed the perfect musical setting for conveying this story. In my version, the narrator Montresor is played by a singer-actor and the character of Fortunato is not played by any one person, but rather by the ensemble of singers, who are also musically embellishing the story. Instead of a typical protagonist-antagonist dynamic, we experience a man haunted by a crime, conjuring the demons of his own imagination to relive his past and, hopefully, confess his sins.


Poe: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge…. ” Finally “It was now midnight, and my task was drawing to a close. There remained but a single stone to be fitted and plastered in. I struggled with its weight; I placed it partially in its destined position.! For the love of God, Montresor!”

Gesualdo: “Alas how I sigh in vain…Cruel one, you give joy to all (note the bipolarity)…Unhappy my fate that life for me has become death…” and finally, “…therefore to hope is not allowed.”

Listeners of certain ancient music ensembles may endure and even enjoy an hour of Gesualdo or Ockeghem dished out very straight, but very rarely does Nightingale spotlight an extended set of short works by a single composer without some theatrical connectivity and leavening. Last night the bite-sized portions provided exactly the sort of nourishment we were expecting.

In some numbers Gesualdo could journey from the deepest despair to the most frivolous rosebud gathering within a few bars. Others were painfully chromatic almost throughout. Artistic Director Benjamin Perry selected the evening’s 10 singers from the company’s roster of 50. In managing the five very independent acapella lines (either one or two on-a-part) the singers met the technical and interpretative challenges with confident brilliance and theatrical woe. The wondrously steady and clear high soprano Erin Hogan, and liquid countertenor Lucas Coura deserve callouts.

The working score is red with Yam’s rhythmic and tempo annotations, showing much deep thought about expression in addition to her work as dramaturge.  One marveled how, armed only with A440 pitchforks, the conductorless vocalists managed to leap so accurately to correct, but often distant pitches. At times they added not quite-so-well-lined-up choral speaking of Fortunato’s words to the telling of the tale; they also provided interesting sound effects and wielded sherry-related props. Only occasionally did they cover the peripatetic narrator. Halbur kept us engaged, as he traveled around the room, mounted the pulpit and cringed underneath it as if in the crypt himself. At one point he joined an aleatoric chorus of weepers (tu piangi); at his signal, they coalesced on E flat. Webs of nitre chillingly surrounded us.

This fascinating concert experience, which repeats tomorrow night at Old North Church, will be available as an illustrated audiobook on streaming platforms, and eventually as a movie!

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I have a question. How popular was he in the Baroque Era, and outside of Italy? Do you think Bach was familiar with his music? I had not heard of the unpleasantness at his palace one night, and only vaguely remember that (I think) Taruskin writes about him in his Renaissance music book. Thanks for your attention to the classical musical world here in the Boston area, especially to great music performances other than the BSO, H & H, and the Celebrity Series.

    Comment by Rich Carle — September 23, 2023 at 10:06 am

  2. Gesualdo was mentioned as a good lute player in letter to Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrera, and he felt competitive with Luzzasco Luzzaschi, who wrote 3-voice pieces for the “three ladies” of Ferrera, so that might be why he stuck more to choral/a cappella madrigal style. Gesualdo definitely traveled to the Ferrera court for weddings and major events and to visit one of his wives (who didn’t want to go home to Venosa). He was good friends with the poet Torquato Tasso.

    Gesualdo’s music wasn’t widely published/circulated during his lifetime, but two other contemporary contemporary composers (Sigismondo d’India and Antonio Cifra) wrote madrigals imitating his, and they mentioned him in their letters. As a composer, he was isolated and had no students, but Monteverdi listed him as one of a group of “seconda pratica” composers in 1605 (new-style, accompanied music) and Alessandro Guarini described his music in letters around 1610. They could could have seen madrigals from his fifth and sixth books in manuscript at that time. He published his most chromatic music in 1611 and died in 1613.

    Bach worked mainly with multi-voice-per-part choirs of men and boys, not one-on-a-part vocal groups. He wrote in German and Latin, but not Italian. I don’t think there is much evidence of him collecting or studying Italian madrigals with secular (non-religious) subjects. But he avidly studied instrumental scores of Italian masters from Venice to Rome.

    In 1981, musicologist and performer Joshua Rifkin proposed a radical idea: that most of Bach’s choral works be performed with one singer per part (establishing the nickname “The B Minor Madrigal”).

    Music scholar Glenn Watkins wrote a 380-page biography (mostly) about Gesualdo’s background, music, and more recent influence called “The Gesualdo Hex: Music, Myth, and Memory” (Norton, 2010), emphasizing his influence on Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Two bigger works inspired by him are Anatole France’s 1875 novella (The Well of Saint Clare), Alfred Schnittke’s one-act opera called “Gesualdo” in English and German (published by Boosey & Hawkes and premiered at the Vienna State Opera in 1995.

    Comment by Laura Prichard — September 23, 2023 at 1:40 pm

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