Murder in the Dark: light, shadow, movement and music illuminate the Passion of Christ.

St George’s Cathedral Consort/Joseph Nolan
directed by James Berlyn
Lighting by Benjamin Bergery
Winthrop Hall, Perth, February 12 

Say the name Carlo Gesualdo, and music lovers are more likely to picture an unhinged Italian nobleman flagellated by his servants as self-imposed penance for murdering his wife and her lover, than to hum a tune from one of his madrigals. The Renaissance composer’s harmonic language is daring, searingly expressive, and at times heart-wrenchingly dissonant: the guy was clearly in touch with his emotions.

This dark Prince of Venosa is famous for his lovelorn madrigals (happy Valentine’s Day, by the way), but his sacred music – by turns uplifting and haunting – is rarely performed. Kudos to Perth International Arts Festival, then, for commissioning Tenebrae et Lux (Darkness and Light), a synergy of music, movement and lighting that illustrates Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsories with a “series of tableaux vivants…bathed in light rhythms” staged by Paris-based media artist Benjamin Bergery and directed by James Berlyn. 

The Latin Tenebrae Responsories, which tell the story of the Passion of Christ, are traditionally performed in a church setting with candles gradually snuffed out until choir and congregation are plunged into complete darkness. It was refreshing to see the arts festival ritual of the “light show” applied on a subtle, small scale, in the intimate surrounds of Winthrop Hall. Rather than fading to black, Tenebrae et Lux begins with silence and pitch dark, introducing focused streams and spheres of golden light, as well as sombre, flickering lanterns that reveal the poses of five dancers representing significant moments in the Passion.

St George’s Cathedral Consort don’t shy away from the sensual textures in this stunning a cappella sacred music, making fleetingly illuminated moments like Judas’ kiss all the more powerful. As if dazzled by the flash bulb of an old camera, I was left with these images burned and lingering under my eyelids. At other times, though, the use of a strobe was uncomfortable and distracted from Gesualdo’s sound world. 

The choir played an integral role in shaping the tableaux, singing in various formations – in the round, antiphonally from the upper gallery of the cathedral-like Winthrop Hall, lined up along the tiered seating on either side of the audience. Their sound was pure and well calibrated, its frequent repositioning energising the flowing polyphony of the music. We hear from all angles their finely shaped phrases, robust tenors and basses and some particularly radiant, exposed moments between two sopranos, all under the direction of Joseph Nolan, whose immense shadow waved the baton dramatically and authoritatively across the far wall’s expanse of brick and stone – don’t all choral conductors want to play God? 

Dancers moved slowly, almost freeze-frame against the light, as if stirring from within a Renaissance painting. Some memorable iconography emerges; the highlight, literally, was a triptych spread as a vector that led diagonally across the hall, the light catching Jesus bearing the load of the cross and, most poignantly, the moment the nails are raised to be hammered into his palms as he lies prostrate on the ground. 

All this should have added up to an incredibly moving sensory experience for the religious and non-believers alike, but awkward shuffling and reconfiguring in silence broke the spell. And then, alas, a technical faux pas: the ominous swirl of a screensaver and a password prompt looming high for all to see. Once Apple had invaded the sacred space, I simply shut my eyes and let the music wash over me.

When the final notes had died out in the reverberant hall, the choir flung open the doors and departed without the customary applause and curtain call. The general consensus from the audience seemed to be confusion rather than the intended catharsis.