The courtyard
The courtyard of castello Gesualdo, where composer Don Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa wrote some of the most astonishing music of the entire Renaissance, lived a life that caused scandal and where he died mysteriously – and where we plan to perform a promenade dramatization of his life.

The Blow That Never Fell – a site specific play about Don Carlo Gesualdo

Shaun has long been fascinated by Don Carlo Gesualdo (1566 approx – 1613, Prince of Venosa. He is generally known for two remarkable things: a body of complex and difficult but at times achingly beautiful choral music that stands apart and unique from anything else written by his contemporaries (Stravinsky, who did much to re-discover his music in the 20th century, said he was avant-garde hundreds of years before the term was invented); and the murders of his first wife and her aristocratic lover in a way considered brutal even by the standards of late 16th century Naples. He then went on to engage in a life of meticulous but lonely musical composition, sado-masochist practices, a period of co-habitation with women alleged by the inquisition to be witches who imprisoned him with unnatural sexual acts – and he also remarried into the sophisticated and glittering d’Este family of Ferrara. The second marriage was not a success, and Don Carlo died in circumstances that are unclear in his remote castello in Gesualdo on September 8th, 1613.

This dark and strange life is uniquely illumined for us, living 400 years after he did, by the huge number of letters between Don Carlo and his often absent second wife, and by many others written about him by Count Alfonso Fontanelli, who was charged by the d’Estes to accompany Don Carlo for several months leading up to the second marriage, or in other words to spy and report on a future son-in-law who, although of the necessary noble parentage, did have ‘previous form’ as a killer!

Don Carlo
The only verified portrait of Don Carlo Gesualdo; a detail from the altarpiece he commissioned for the Capuchin church in Gesualdo. He stares longingly from a lower corner of the picture at figures ascending to heaven while he remains below.

Shaun published an online article on the fascination with Don Carlo Gesualdo that he and a number of other contemporary artists have had, in which he outlined plans to write about him: https://www.rlf.org.uk/showcase/haunted-by-gesualdo/

In 2018 Shaun received research funding from UWE (University of the West of England) to visit various sites in Southern Italy associated with Gesualdo’s life. Don Carlo Gesualdo has been portrayed in quite a range of modern works of fiction and drama as various incarnations of the ‘straight from central casting’ tortured genius; but, more interestingly to Shaun, he was the only artist of the entire Renaissance who never wrote for commission or for a patron. What artistic and personal freedom did that deliver to him? What creative freedom was taken from him by the lifelong, increasing guilt he felt about the murders? Did his pained and haunting music reflect his belief that a blow to punish him, from an earthy assassin or from some more divine source that would be aimed at his soul, was always ready to fall? It never did and he died, we presume not much missed or loved, in his remote castello. This was the basis of the play Shaun wanted to write.

The castello

In the town of Gesualdo, with its rarely accessible castle, Shaun was somehow persuaded by various (persuasive!) locals that he was in fact not there to research a stage play for production in a UK theatre, but to do the groundwork to create a site-specific work to be played in various parts of the castle.

A first draft of the play was written over the winter of 2018–9. Shaun is now working with director and composer Felix Cross on a revised version of the story. Whatever way Don Carlo’s story is finally told, it will be as a site-specific, promenade show in the castello. The action will move the audience through various locations in the highly atmospheric building and feature live performances of Don Carlo’s music by a consort from Napoli.

A further research and travel grant from UWE is enabling Shaun to return to Gesualdo in July 2019 to build further collaborations with theatre makers in Italy and to develop the actual production of the play in the rooms and courtyards of the castello.

It is planned for the text / performance to mix English and Italian, with surtitling in both languages as required. It is also hoped that an Italian film crew will make a recording of the performance for future screening at festivals, so that those who cannot make the long journey to remote Gesualdo can share what we know will be an exciting and powerful live performance event.