Last Friday I went to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for Opera Parallele's "opera lab" first public presentation of Gesualdo, Prince of Madness, based on the life of the Italian Renaissance composer, with music by Dante de Silva, libretto by Mitchell Morris, and graphics by Mark Simmons. The performance was held in the smaller recital hall there, which was packed. As usual with Opera Parallele, Brian Staufenbiel handled the staging and Nicole Paiement conducted. An electronic keyboard stood in for most of the orchestra, but there was also piano, percussion, and, for that distinctive Renaissance sound, a theorbo, along with a trio of women singers, to evoke the madrigals Gesualdo wrote for women's voices.
The opera is in two acts; the performance, which started late, lasted about an hour and fifteen minutes. The first half tells the notorious story of Gesualdo's murder of his wife and her lover when he caught them in bed together. The second half shows the aftermath: Gesualdo, struggling with obsessive memories of the murdered pair, withdrawn into a private world of musical calculations, is married for political reasons to a different young woman, who, advised by a cunning old attendant, is plotting her own way to freedom. The plot is as lurid as anything John Webster might have come up with, complete with adultery, murder, mad scenes, cross-dressing, and deadly herbal poisons, and is a reminder of the reason so many Jacobean tragedies take place in Italy.
But the emphasis isn't so much on the violence as on Gesualdo's distracted mental state; there is frenzied music, but also disquieting, plinking sounds reminiscent of a brain being picked at and over obsessively. There aren't really stand-alone arias; the dialogue flows on as in Wozzeck. Complex ensembles evoke Renaissance madrigals, and the music sounds contemporary with both us and the characters on stage.
Opera Parallele's stagings are always stylish, adventurous, and experimental. The idea for this one is that the "staging" will actually be a projection done in the style of a graphic novel. I assume in the finished version the singers will be in the pit or otherwise out of sight, but I might be wrong about that. I also don't know if the finished version will have continuous movements (as in an animated film) or "panels" that give way to other panels, with some interior animation, which is what we saw on Friday.
It's an interesting idea, and in some ways is the ideal of a certain type of opera creator (or fan): the characters will always look as they do in the drawings, without the variations and chance qualities that you get with different individuals (particularly in opera casting, where voice and not appearance is the primary concern). But I like seeing the different qualities different performers bring to a role; I was thinking about this when Nikola Printz started singing Artemisia, the older lady-in-waiting – I could tell immediately from the way she darkened her voice not only that she was singing a different character from before, but the type of guarded, calculating character this woman was. It played off in interesting ways against the singer's youthful appearance and Louise Brooks-style hairdo. But on screen Artemisia will always have the same dour, dessicated look. The drawings are very well done but personally I prefer a more stylized look (the style here is similar to the fairly realistic style used by Dave Gibbons for Alan Moore's Watchmen).
In addition to Printz, the singers were Daniel Cilli as Carlo, impassioned and convincing as both killer and composer, Michelle Rice as his first wife Maria, Maya Kherani as his second wife Leonora, Andres Ramirez as Maria's lover, Chris Filipowicz as a male servant, and Sarah Eve Brand, Lora Libby, and Rachel Rush as the female trio. Though there were projections there were no surtitles (a printed libretto was provided). I had little trouble understanding the words, though, except for some of the ensembles and the higher-lying voices, which are where I usually have trouble. Keisuke Nakagoshi played piano, Adam Cockerham played theorbo, McKenzie Camp played percussion, and Eva-Maria Zimmerman handled the keyboard. It was difficult to believe they'd only been playing this piece together for a week or so.
The opera has been in development for several years, but the company has only recently started working on it as a group. I look forward to seeing the finished version, or other intermediate stages. There was a Q-and-A session afterwards with the artists, followed by a reception, but I was unable to stay for either. Perhaps if I had I would have seen Axel Feldheim, who was there, though sadly for me I missed him.