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Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices - a film by Werner Herzog

4.5 out of 5 stars 6 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

The last decade of the twentieth century alone spawned three operas based on the life of the 'principe dei musici': Alfred Schnittke's Gesualdo was premiered in 1995 at the Vienna State Opera; then the following year came Franz Hummel's opera of the same name, a commission from the city of Kaiserslautern; and in 1998 Salvatore Sciarrino wrote an opera for the Schwetzingen Festival entitled Luci mie traditrici, after a sixteenth century drama about a prince who murders his wife.

So Gesualdo was already the focus of a good deal of interest when the Munich-based director and film producer Werner Herzog also developed an interest in the composer at about this time. Herzog seemed somehow predestined for the job. His preference for eccentric protagonists, amply attested to in films such as Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo starring Klaus Kinski, went hand in hand with a musical streak that has won him a great deal of admiration since the mid 1980s with regular opera productions at the Bayreuth Festival, the Opera Bastille in Paris and La Scala, Milan. Of course, one was never to expect a creative artist of Herzog's talents to produce a conventional documentary film.


"...The busy Curtis (who recently recorded Handel's Ariodante, the first opera I ever heard him conduct, with Gauvin, and DiDonato in the title role) actually appears on screen, leading Il Complesso Barocco, in a 1995 Werner Herzog film, Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices, newly out on DVD (ArtHaus Musik). It's a film strange enough to be worthy of its supremely eccentric subject, madrigalist Carlo Gesualdo (1560-1613). And it takes the music seriously enough not to hide it in a soundtrack but to give it to us in full-frontal performances by Curtis and his musicians, jeans-clad and ensconced in the ruins of the castle in which Gesualdo died.

Because it's Herzog, and therefore no standard-issue biopic, Death for Five Voices - also far too imaginative, even speculative, to qualify as a documentary - begins with an explanation of how the composer, after a life of sexual misadventures, probably died of an infection caused by the punitive whippings he hired a staff of 20 to administer nightly. It answers the question, was he a masochist?, with a speculative yes, noting that he also forced one of his servants (gender unspecified) to share his bed, purportedly to keep him warm. The Prince of Venosa's sexploits were famously, and infamously, with women, but South of Market offers nothing to (you should pardon the expression) top him. But Herzog and his talking heads tell it better.

Today, Gesualdo is considered one of the greatest Renaissance composers, and by any estimation the greatest chromaticist before Wagner. Proof comes no more potent than the two madrigals Curtis and his singers perform. There are also performances by the Gesualdo Consort of London and, fittingly, a musical appearance by an unnamed man with a bagpipe-like instrument who comes to the castle regularly to blast out the spirit of an evil ghost.

Then there's a horse." -Tim Pfaff -- The Bay Area Reporter - June 17, 1010

Documentary films about composers, even when they are as smoothly delivered and musically star-studded as Phil Grabsky's recent pair on Beethoven and Mozart, often have about the charm of a well-written encyclopedia article. That's why it's good news to have back in circulation this wonderfully eccentric, auteurish, and at times hilarious film on Carlo Gesualdo (1560-1630) by the German director Werner Herzog.

Gesualdo's ear-bending harmonic audacity and the sheer breathless invention of his madrigals famously inspired many 20th-century composers, from Stravinsky to Alfred Schnittke. But it's also no doubt "the murky aura of criminality and obsession,'' as this DVD's liner notes put it, that has enticed many listeners to learn more about the enigmatic composer. As the young prince of Venosa, Gesualdo married his cousin Maria d'Avalos but, after catching her in the act with another lover, notoriously murdered both of them in cold blood.

Made for German television in the mid-1990s, "Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices'' cannot be called a documentary in the conventional sense. Yes, Herzog taps serious-minded performers but he also stages completely invented scenes, like a surprise encounter with an itinerant bagpipe player who drenches the walls of Gesualdo's castle with music to keep the composer's evil spirit at bay. The film crew also mysteriously happens upon a woman who believes she is the reincarnation of the composer's murdered wife. In one particularly comic moment, two Italian cooks hold forth from their trattoria kitchen, analyzing the prince's supposed wedding menu, marveling at its extravagance (2,000 oysters!) while expressing horror at his murderous deeds ("He was the devil!'').

Often in this film historical truth and directorial fiction feel equally strange. But Herzog's genuine passion for his subject comes through clearly. So do the fine performances of Gesualdo's madrigals by Il Complesso Barocco and the Gesualdo Consort of London. And if you have sat through a lot of sober, earnest composer documentaries, you will appreciate one that ends with the delectably absurd scene of a conductor waxing poetic on Gesualdo's music while grown men in outlandish costumes joust behind him on horseback. -- - July 4, 2010

The sordid tale of a murderous prince is alluring; all the more so when the subject is also a supremely innovative composer for his time. While certainly intriguing for music aficionados, Carlo Gesualdo seems to have also left a legacy of fascination bordering on obsession for the current-day inhabitants of the village attached to his castle's ruins. In 1586, he married his beautiful cousin, Maria d'Avalos. Only a few years later, in a pre-meditated act of jealous rage, he murdered Maria and her lover and displayed their bodies first on the steps of the house, then preserved them for display in a nearby church. Being a prince, he was never prosecuted for this "crime of passion" or for subsequently killing their young son, nonetheless, he did torture himself through unrelenting flagellation for the rest of his days.

Werner Herzog's movie Death for Five Voices takes his audience on a tour of this house of horrors through the eyes of colourful local inhabitants: the bagpiper who regularly flushes out evil spirits, a mad opera singer who thinks she's the reincarnation of Maria and local chefs who describe the decadent 120-course wedding feast. A few of his madrigals are performed by the Gesualdo Consort and Il Complesso Barocco led by Alan Curtis who also provides useful musical commentary. Both of these ensembles perform this difficult repertoire with its many harmonic and rhythmic twists and turns most admirably, if a bit too scholarly. The women do manage to evoke some of the sensuality of the "Three Ladies of Ferrara" that Gesulado would have certainly known from the house of his second wife Leonora d'Este (who later fled to a nunnery).

I did prefer the inclusion of female voices when comparing these performances with a recent recording of Gesualdo's Madrigals Book 1 by Delitiae Musicae, an all-male ensemble led by Marco Longhini. That preference aside, this group does a superb job of conveying the sweet and painful longings inherent in texts by Guarini and Tasso made ever so much more excruciating by Gesualdo's dissonances, chromaticism and quick tonal discombobulations. The group's purity of tone and precise intonation ensures that these turns are well articulated and deeply understood.

Both DVD and CD releases provide artfully crafted insights into a virtuosic but deeply disturbed individual. Gesualdo's history and his music are neither for the faint of heart nor the disingenuous. -- The Whole Note, Dianne Wells

Special Features


Product Details

  • Actors: Carlo Gesualdo, Il Complesso Barocco, Alan Curtis, Gesualdo Consort of London, Gerald Place
  • Directors: Werner Herzog
  • Format: Multiple Formats, Color, NTSC, Subtitled, Widescreen
  • Language: Italian (PCM Stereo), German (PCM Stereo), English (PCM Stereo)
  • Subtitles: French, Spanish
  • Region: All Regions
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: NR (Not Rated)
  • Studio: Arthaus
  • DVD Release Date: February 23, 2010
  • Run Time: 60 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #135,072 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: DVD
Werner Herzog is renowned for his work with and about real life eccentrics: Dieter Dengler ("Little Dieter Needs to Fly"), Klaus Kinski ("My Best Fiend"), Timothy Treadwell ("Grizzly Man") - and now Italian nobleman and Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo, in "Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices". This 60-minute film has many of the hallmarks of a Herzog documentary, the most noticeable being the blurred line between reality and fantasy. Herzog takes us from Gesualdo's ruined castle in the Italian town of Gesualdo, to Naples, where Gesualdo brutally murdered his first wife and her lover, intercut with magnificent performances by the Gesualdo Consort of London. Many of the narrative scenes were staged by Herzog (with him providing the English audio commentary), adding storyline (and oftimes humour) where there otherwise might have been none. Gesualdo's life and musical legacy are controversial, but his talent is undeniable. For lovers of Herzog's work and Renaissance madrigals, this is not to be missed. If you are only a fan of one of these, you'll probably still enjoy this film. But if you like neither - well, perhaps you could make a gift of this to someone who does, because it's truly a unique and intriguing work.
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Format: DVD
Herzog calls this "one of the films closest to my heart," and I can see why.

For one, it contains all of the usual Herzogian themes such as artistic-driven madness/genius and the audacity of humans against nature. For another, it contains some autobiographical info that he tells through Gesualdo-- for example, the artifact in the museum which allegedly perplexed Gesualdo is in fact an artifact that had perplexed Herzog himself and caused him to lose sleep, and had no connection to Gesualdo.

Much of the film is scripted, even more so than most of Herzog's "documentaries." To appreciate a scripted documentary, you need to understand why Herzog would do such a thing. There are different kinds of truths, he believes, and the "accountant's truth" - what you usually see in documentaries - is just one of them, and a rather uninteresting one. But this film, Herzog says, invented and staged though much of it may be, "contains the most profound possible truths about Gesualdo."

The final scene features one of the best facial expressions ever to appear on a Herzog film, and that's saying something. To elicit the strange stare that the man gives, Herzog instructed him to stare into the camera very seriously, but then Herzog made jokes behind the camera. The result is a fascinating, almost glowing tension on the man's face.

P.S. - This film (at least as of July 2012) is available for free on YouTube.
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Format: DVD
"In this castle Carlo Gesualdo spent the last 16 years of his life in total solitude, in hideous torment, torn from within, pursued by furies and demons. He was an artist of the highest rank, he had a touch of genius, anticipating an artistic movement which didn't develop until the beginning of our own century, namely expressionism. In his madrigals, his favorite art form, he expressed his innermost being, his entire spiritual world, steeped in seclusion and madness." Thus begins director Werner Herzog's film Death for Five Voices, a 60 minute exploration of the mythology surrounding the life of Renaissance composer and Prince of Venosa Carlo Gesualdo. Herzog is known for his fascination with individuals who are driven by their own demons to the fringes of society. His film Grizzly Man, about bear expert Timothy Treadwell, follows the haunting true story of a former drug addict who secluded himself and eventually died among the grizzly bears of Alaska. Gripping stuff indeed, but the problem with a similar documentary on Gesualdo is that our subject is some four-hundred years dead. No neighbors remain to be interviewed, no family members; so Herzog must rely on musicologists reading from their notes and eccentric townspeople seemingly desperate to appear on film who wander in and out of Gesualdo's ruined castle at will. What's fascinating is how his legend has survived and metamorphosed--but how much truth remains in their stories is questionable indeed. Even the opening words tell us that Gesualdo spent his final years in total solitude; but we know he had a staff of 20, plus a consort of professional musicians, and his son, and perhaps other family members.Read more ›
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Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices - a film by Werner Herzog
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