Les Arts Florissants Take Audiences On Intense Journey Through The Sacred Madrigals of Carlo Gesualdo

By Jennifer Pyron

(Photo credit: Paula Lobo)

The MetLiveArts series hosted Les Arts Florissants and Musical Director Paul Agnew at The Met Cloisters for a special performance that featured the sacred madrigals of Carlo Gesualdo. “Tribulationem et dolorem,” “Répons de l’Office des Ténèbres du Jeudi Saint,” and “Miserere mei Deus” are some of Gesualdo’s most impactful compositions that are part of a concert series dedicated to Carlo Gesualdo’s music, performed over three seasons by Les Arts Florissants and Paul Agnew. The pieces chosen by Paul Agnew clearly presented Gesualdo’s profound experimental style and ability to juxtapose intense emotions of fear, pain, love, hate and ecstasy through his music.

It is said that Gesualdo was plagued by extreme internal and external conflict throughout his life. He relied on his title as a noble to pardon him from crimes which included the brutal murders of his first wife and her lover. He also imprisoned his second wife with whom he had a hostile relationship and grew even more obsessed within his own mind based on these criminal acts and constant need to seek pardon for his actions.

Separating his music from his evil deeds however, might be impossible as Gesualdo’s conflicted distortion of reality and self might have been what most set him apart from madrigalists and the world around him. As a composer, one might view him as a master that drew from his experiences of isolation, guilt and shame in order to generate a deeper fascination with his dark side for all to hear. He realized his most violent emotions as something beautiful within his music. Gesualdo developed new ideas around his obsessive text responses and experimental progressions, which greatly impacted the Renaissance period and ultimately lead him to be defined as a musical pioneer in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

The Fuentidueña Chapel at The Met Cloisters is where Les Arts Florissants soloists Miriam Allan, Hannah Morrison, Mélodie Ruvio, Paul Agnew, Sean Clayton, and Edward Grint performed Gesualdo’s sacred madrigals. The core of the performance featured “Responsoria et alia ad Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae spectantia” which are nine responses published in 1611 before Gesualdo died in 1613. The set pertains to the last days of Holy Week, which include Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. In these responses, the soloists performed Gesualdo’s lyrics with a blended array of intense emotions. Their voices resonated throughout The Fuentidueña Chapel and manifested layers of ethereal sounds. They performed with profound precision and meaning that made each response feel like a unique and individual story that exposed a new dimension of Gesualdo’s psyche.

The polyphonic compositions were an array of blissful overtones that created an immersive sound bath of melancholy and nostalgia. Listeners noticeably reveled in the meditational experience and Paul Agnew proved to be the ultimate guide. The soloists’ dynamics were extraordinary throughout the entire performance. They easily transitioned from sounding like one solo voice to sounding like fifty voices within one response. Together they indulged listeners with Gesualdo’s brilliant word painting and one might have felt like they were trapped inside of his delusional mind.

Les Arts Florissants took listeners on a deep journey into the emotional binging and purging of Gesualdo’s responses especially when they performed the final piece “Psalm 50: Miserere Mei Deus” which clearly summarized Gesualdo’s overall plea:

“Let me hear joy and gladness: and the bones made humble shall rejoice. Turn your face from my sins, and erase all my sins. Create a clean heart in me, O God, and renew a right spirit within my being.”



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