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Theatre in Review: Death for Five Voices (Prospect Theater Company/Sheen Center)

Manna Nichols, Nathan Gardner, L. R. Davidson, Meghan McGeary, Jeff Williams. Photo Richard Termine

It was the theatre writer Ethan Mordden who coined the term "floperetta" to refer to musicals, mostly from the early- to mid-20th century, that combined rivers of melody with stilted, florid dialogue and characters right out of the wax museum. (They include the now-forgotten The Love Call, Magdelana, and My Romance, titles that tell all.) We haven't had a real, honest-to-God floperetta in decades, but here comes Death for Five Voices, which manages to be simultaneously stiff and overwrought: The narrative, which is taken -- mangled, really -- from the historical record, is filled with forbidden passions, acts of violence, and cynical maneuvers by the Catholic Church, and still it manages to be thoroughly dull.

Death for Five Voices is based on the life of Carlo Gesualdo (1566 - 1613), who is remembered for two things: writing music that employed harmonies not heard again for three hundred years, and killing his wife and her lover. Since he was an aristocrat with family connections to the Church -- and it was the 16th century -- he got away with murder, going on to compose, of all things, an extensive portfolio of sacred music. He also picked up another wife, whom he drove to distraction with his abusive behavior. Later on, he fell into a terrible depression, hiring servants to administer daily beatings. By any standard, it was a singular career. As the music critic Alex Ross commented in The New Yorker, "If Gesualdo had not committed such shocking acts, we might not pay such close attention to his music. But if he had not written such shocking music we would not care so much about his deeds. Many bloodier crimes have been forgotten; it's the nexus of high art and foul play that catches our fancy."

There may be a dark, driving opera in this material, but, as the hero of a conventional musical, Gesualdo is a tough sell, and the book writers, Peter Mills and Cara Reichel, play fast and loose with history in order to reshape his story into a palatable form. In their view, he is a reluctant prince, inheriting the burden of managing the family's interests after the death of his older brother. Gesualdo only wants to isolate himself in his room and compose, which upsets his mother, Girolama, who wants him married off at the earliest possible moment, if only to produce an heir. Gesualdo's musical passions are controversial in other ways, too: His uncle, Alfonso, a fast-rising prince of the Church, wants his nephew to compose sacred music, something the younger man refuses to do. (Alfonso appears to be a fictionalized version of Carlo Borromeo, Gesualdo's real-life relative, who, as St. Charles Borromeo, was known as a reformer of the Church, a reputation that would conflict with the scheming, highly political character presented here.)

Gesualdo marries Maria D'Avalos, who, by the time we meet her, has outlasted two husbands and five children, and yet somehow is presented here as a limpid operetta heroine. She is also Gesualdo's first cousin -- a detail that means very little when you have Vatican connections -- but, in any case, the requisite heir is produced. However, despite Gesualdo's protestations of love, he prefers to spend his time locked up in his room composing. Maria finds herself trapped in a rather unusual triangle -- man, woman, and spinet -- and soon, feeling neglected, she starts making eyes at Fabrizio Carafa, Gesualdo's dashing best friend, who returns the favor, and then some.

The book is loaded with the kind of mouthfuls that would challenge any actor. Gesualdo, abandoning Maria to compose, tells a servant, "Tell her I hold her radiant beauty in my soul, and will not sleep until I have captured her perfection in the chords of my music." Maria, unburdening herself to Alfonso, says, "When my daughter Beatrice died, I cursed God." Alfonso replies, "In the hour of death the Devil wages his fiercest battle for our souls." Maria, upping the ante, adds, "I....have not loved...as I ought." Alfonso, never at a loss for words, says, "This is to be human, child. Take comfort in the perfection of our Lord's grace." The lyrics run to such expressions as "Why does my cheek flush?/Each times our eyes meet?/I know the signs and this time I should be smart./Now that I know how love can hurt me/Hush. And be still, my heart." At times, it's hard to believe that Death for Five Voices isn't something that Lee and J.J. Shubert used to trot out between engagements of Blossom Time.

Reichel's production, marshalling a vocally gifted, but dramatically at sea, cast, does the material no favors. Both as written, and as played by Nathan Gardner, Carlo lacks the furious passion and drive that would make something coherent of his behavior. The actor makes Carlo into a petulant, ineffective figure -- his sexuality remains an utter mystery -- one almost laughably detached from the outsized emotions ascribed to him. Manna Nichols sings nicely as Maria but is hopelessly overmatched by her wooden dialogue; similarly, Nicholas Rodriguez, as Fabrizio, cannot transmute cardboard into human flesh. Jeff Williams is missing the overripe, ultra-worldly quality that might make Alfonso believable. The best work comes from Meghan McGeary, whose campy line readings as Girolama at least provide a little amusement. Ryan Bauer-Walsh and L.R. Davidson are solid as the servants who get caught up in the Gesualdo family intrigues.

Ann Bartek's set, which mostly consists of a series of brick wall units laden with candles, is reasonably effective, and Susan M. Nicholson's lighting confidently reshapes the space as needed. Sidney Shannon has provided some gorgeously detailed period costumes; amusingly, each time Alfonso appears, he has another ecclesiastical outfit, signaling his latest promotion. Janie Bullard's sound design is thoroughly natural.

The score has a couple of moments, particularly the opening, "Tribulationem," which is adapted from one of Gesualdo's compositions, and "Ever Closer," which condenses the action of three years into a few minutes, but overall, this is a sluggish, unconvincing evening, additionally undone by its relentlessly sententious tone. Shouldn't this much intrigue be more intriguing? -- David Barbour

(11 April 2016)

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