Review: Caruso (Gold is the sweat of the sun)

First published in the Guardian on 9 November, 2015

There was already the faint sound of singing as we entered the room: warped samples of the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, adored at the turn of the 20th century for his potent lyricism and ardent top notes. In Werner Herzog’s 1980s epic cult film Fitzcarraldo, Klaus Kinski sails the Amazon blasting Caruso records across the jungle to placate the natives. His grotesque facial expressions reach their most crazed and obsessive as he cranks up the gramophone and eyeballs the horizon.

David Fennessy. a Glasgow-based composer of deep sensitivity, style and a knack for doing imaginative things with old samples, has constructed his own kind of impossible Caruso obsession. He has been writing a series of pieces based around Fitzcarraldo’s big metaphor — that absurd image of a full-size steamboat being dragged over a hill in the swampy jungle. Fennessy’s first Herzog piece was an orchestral prologue fusing chords from Verdi’s Rigoletto with a ten-minute guitar glissando. Caruso (Gold is the sweat of the sun) is his second, and it’s mesmerising.

At this UK premiere — part of Sonica festival — the audience sat cross-legged on the floor while surround-sound speakers played 20 straight minutes of Caruso top notes, lifted from gramophone recordings then stretched, looped and played back via laptop by Pete Dowling. The sound was claustrophobic, warbled and melancholy: a worn-out fantasy that wont let go. Fennessy stood at the front of the room looking shy with an electric guitar and played fragile, yearning, thrumming melodies. Intermittently he strummed an autoharp as if announcing a mirage. The balance wasn’t quite right — I wanted more from the impossibly heroic Caruso choir; I wanted to be totally enveloped by it — but equally there was something fitting about the composer-guitarist as protagonist eclipsing his own obsession.