At a pinch, I suppose I'd accept that some of the lurid carryings-on and local legends that have gathered around the figure of the composer Gesualdo, and are retailed here with a gleeful lack of critical scrutiny, might actually be true. Perhaps quite a lot of them are, but it doesn't really matter, because Herzog seems at least as interested in the way that people create, exploit and enjoy the legends, as in the composer himself or his music. Some sequences are very obviously staged for the camera, and Herzog seems almost to be daring us to believe that we really are talking to, say, a mad ex-opera singer who believes herself to be the reincarnation of Gesualdo's murdered first wife. The results are certainly very, very funny -- but everything pales before the irrepressible wife of a local chef, who disrupts his efforts to tell us about Gesualdo's extravagant menus with a torrent of abuse dedicated at the composer, whom she regards as the devil incarnate.
But then, for all its contrivances, the whole film has a deadpan, dishevelled feel about it. No effort is made to disguise that the resident expert Gerald Place is talking from notes or keeps developing a nasty frog in his throat: as one of the few people in the documentary who seems basically sensible, he has to be quietly sent up some other way! Only the intelligent and rather sympathetic Principe d'Avalos seems to escape with his dignity intact -- perhaps because he's aristocracy.
Musical duties are divided between two groups of singers. The Gesualdo Consort of London mostly sing in tune, the Complesso Barocco mostly don't -- the avant-garde quality is certainly exaggerated by the problems with intonation in what is very difficult music. As with the interviews with Gerald Place I get the impression Herzog didn't want to do retakes if things went slightly wrong, and the singing certainly has plenty of enthusiasm. Only he can be blamed for the way the audio and visual get out of sync by a couple of seconds in close-ups of the director in one of the musical performances; but somehow it all seems to add to the effect of cheerful bizarrerie. How a specialist in Renaissance music would react to this documentary I dread to think (I'm sure there'd be some swearing and gesticulation) but as social comedy it's priceless.
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