Prospect Theater Company’s musical Death for Five Voices tells the story of the double murder committed by Italian prince (and madrigal composer) Carlo Gesualdo in Naples in 1590. According to a program note, the poet Torquato Tasso was among the first writers to draw inspiration from the grisly saga of the cuckolded husband who slew his wife/cousin and her lover. But Tasso was far from the last such artist. In a 2011 New Yorker article, music writer Alex Ross noted that as many as eleven operatic works have utilized the Gesualdo story for their libretti. The disturbing tale was also brought to life in an odd 1995 semi-documentary by filmmaker Werner Herzog, also called Death for Five Voices.
Now the material has been reworked by the team of Peter Mills (composer, lyricist, co-librettist) and Cara Reichel (co-librettist, director). This is an ambitious piece, overflowing with sounds of music seldom if ever heard on the American musical theatre stage. Some of Mills’ songs were inspired by the unusual (for the 16th century) musical progressions that composer Gesualdo employed. The madrigalist juxtaposed chords in a way that apparently grated on his contemporaries’ ears—and still seems peculiar to ours. One Mills lyric refers to what Gesualdo created as “dark harmonic transgressions.” There is sometimes harsh beauty in the music, to be sure. But as Alex Ross succinctly noted, “Gesualdo is the highest expression of pain in music.”
Still, even while weaving Gesualdo’s musical idiosyncrasies into his score, Mills has crafted a piece that is rooted in the American musical theater tradition. A song called “Still My Heart"—a first-act duet for Gesualdo’s doomed wife Maria D’Avalos (Manna Nichols) and her attendant Sylvia (LR. Davidson)—fits in the 16th-century Italian milieu but also serves as a musical theatre “wanting song” and features wordplay that made me think of Ira Gershwin. And “To Paint The Ceiling,” the robust love duet for Maria and her lover, Fabrizio Carafa (Nicholas Rodriguez), brings to mind the passion of Lerner and Loewe’s “If Ever I Would Leave You,” written for a similar dramatic situation in Camelot. The music in this score may not be all of a piece, but Mills doesn’t let the stitches show.
The cast is excellent. Both Nichols and Rodriguez have spectacular singing voices. As Gesualdo, Nathan Gardner makes his eyes dart crazily. He is the picture of a man whose artistic gifts also serve as the curses of a defiant, wayward soul: a Neapolitan Psycho. Among the supporting players, Ryan Bauer-Walsh is winning as the Gesualdos’ servant, Pietro—he’s a strong actor and his vocals can be both searing and soaring. And Meghan McGeary creates subtly comic undertones in her portrayal of Gesualdo’s imposing mother, Girolama, a role that frequently suggests Hamlet’s Gertrude.
Director Reichel deftly moves the characters around Ann Bartek’s evocative set and to the further reaches of the Sheen Center’s theater space. Music director Max Mamon serves Mills’ score well, though he might still look for ways to ensure that the singers are better heard above the orchestra.
Mills’ score is the main event here, and he seldom disappoints. One song, “The Greater Glory,” sung by Alfonso Gesualdo (Jeff Williams), Carlo and Maria’s ecclesiastical uncle, does seem relatively by-the-book. But Mills’ astonishing talent as a musician, lyricist and dramatist comes through blazingly in “Strange Relations,” in which Gesualdo reveals his character’s unconventional psyche and simultaneously gives Fabrizio (and the audience) a brisk lesson in music theory.