Review: Cara Reichel and Peter Mills' DEATH FOR FIVE VOICES, A Compelling Musical of a Renaissance Composer

By: Apr. 10, 2016
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The absurdly under-recognized wife and husband musical theatre team of director/bookwriter Cara Reichel and composer/lyricist/bookwriter Peter Mills, whose intelligent, cleverly mounted and musically fascinating creations such as THE UNDERCLASSMAN, THE ROCKAE and ILLYRIA have exclusively premiered via artistic director Reichel's Prospect Theater Company, are no strangers to striking audience members' senses in unexpected ways.

Nathan Gardner, Meghan McGeary, Ryan Bauer-Walsh
and L.R. Davidson (Photo: Richard Termine)

Take, for example, a moment in their magnetically complex Death for Five Voices, inspired by the life and career of Italian Renaissance composer, Carlo Gesualdo. The first act contains an invigorating ballad sung by his close friend, Fabrizio, a nobleman whose lyric tells how a near-death experience in the military taught him to savoir every moment of beauty, art and love he can grasp onto. The handsome and charismatic Nicholas Rodriguez embraces the song with a robust high baritone, seducing both the audience and Gesualdo's wife, Maria (Manna Nichols).

Standing alone, it's a wonderful song, but in the context of the musical, the moment's lush, traditional beauty is missing something; the excitement of the unfamiliar.

That's because earlier in the act, Nathan Gardner, as the obsessive, visionary Gesualdo, has a scene where he tricks Fabrizio into giving his honest opinion of his latest composition. He calls it bizarre and more noise than music. This was probably a common response because the composer had continually rejected his era's standard, Catholic Church prescribed, elements of musical beauty for darkly emotional work that presented chromatic relationships thought, to the ears of people like Fabrizio, to be harsh and unnatural.

In a captivating musical scene titled "Strange Relations," Gesualdo, playing his harpsichord but aided by voices of the seven-member cast, demonstrates how he takes chord structures regarded in his day as sounding attractive, and alters them to achieve tones that made his contemporaries uncomfortable with their unfamiliarity. It's a fascinating blend of music theory and character development.

Nicholas Rodriguez and Manna Nichols
(Photo: Richard Termine)

History remembers Gesualdo for murdering Maria and Fabrizio when discovering them in bed together; an action he was never charged for because of his status as Prince of Venosa. It has been suggested by scholars that the attention paid to his brutal act is what saved his music from historical obscurity. While the authors never ask the audience to sympathize with Gesualdo - he's presented as an arrogant and sometimes cruel man who knows when to be charming - his reaction to his wife's infidelity and his friend's betrayal appears more complicated than a simple crime of passion because he seems to regard Maria, not as his love, but, more importantly in his eye, as his muse.

Gesualdo's marriage to Maria, his recently widowed first cousin, is orchestrated by his manipulative mother (Meghan McGeary), who, after the death of her other son, recognizes the urgent need for an heir. Without one, the principality would be lost to the church.

While the story of an obsessive artist who's an unrecognized genius and the woman he ignores is a familiar one, Reichel and Mills enhance their tale with a tense claustrophobic feel that Gesualdo tries to break free from with his music and Maria tries to break free from with her affair. Ann Bartek's imposing set is dominated by brick walls and rows of candles.

The fine company includes Jeff Williams as the bishop who recognizes Gesualdo's talent and is frustrated by his maverick artistry, L.R. Davidson as the young, loyal maid who helps Maria find romance and Ryan Bauer-Walsh as the by-the-book palace steward. Aside from playing their roles, the ensemble members, under music director Max Mamon, sound beautiful singing choral pieces, some adapted from Gesualdo's compositions. While the lyrical cleverness Mills has displayed in past musicals is inappropriate here, his contrast of the way Gesualdo musically expresses himself with that of the world surrounding him is often thrilling.

Daring in ambition, exciting in execution, Death for Five Voices, deserves far more exposure than its current limited run. Cara Reichel and Peter Mills shouldn't have to stoop to murder to get some attention.


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