Review: Marian Consort’s Breaking the Rules

First published in the Guardian on 13 September, 2016

Gesualdo’s life was a shocker — the 16th century composer prince who murdered his first wife and her lover then lived out a life of debauchery and self-flagellation — but so too is his music shocking, so harmonically unbound that it was heralded as proto-serialism in the 20th century and still sounds superbly unnerving today, time after time.

Breaking the Rules was a one-man psychodrama waiting to happen with a pick of Gesualdo madrigals (Moro, lasso; Dolcissima mia vita) and Tenebrae responsories (ending with the spine-tingling Miserere mei, Deus) performed by the Marian Consort. The author is Clare Norburn, herself an early music soprano as well as a playwright, and the director is Nicholas Renton; they recreate Gesualdo’s last night with Gerald Kyd playing the aged composer as tormented, repentant and still marvellously arrogant as he relives his most notorious episode. The writing is decent and doesn’t just paint a murderous moron: we witness how he felt jealous of his big brother, desperate for his mother’s love, sexually humiliated on his wedding night, abandoned by god.

Best is how the music is woven in, with six singers emerging from the back of the church then circling Gesualdo, line blurred between chapel choir and the voices in his head. And the staging seems to have had a knock-on effect on the Marians because this is the best I’ve heard them sing — not always squeaky clean but fluid, vivid and, crucially, daring.