Rather than write pastiche Renaissance polyphony, Finsterer’s score recreates the Renaissance sound world with modern musical codes, using imaginative instrumentation, scattered modernist textures, and instrumental figuration of the sort exploited by minimalist Michael Nyman, to animate, transform and sometimes subvert the glistening vocal sonorities from an outstanding cast of singers.
Its most musically interesting elements are Finsterer’s ear for original, dramatically appropriate instrumental and vocal combinations and the way musical processes intersect with mathematical ones, in a collision of the sensual and the rational.
Although the story dwells in the realm of the mind, there is an instinct for narrative and refreshing the dramatic tone at key moments with new sounds and situations.
The opening scene, Horoscope, creates an arresting and imposing opening using gongs, beautifully edged concordant vocal harmony and splashes of chaotic color from the instruments.
In Scene VIII, Lock of Combinations, the chorus “explains” the mathematics behind Cardano’s invention of the combination lock, in textures that spiral like intersecting spheres.
For the final scene, Darker recreates a Renaissance dance with raucous woodwind and percussion intrusions, like a grimly realistic dance of death.
Mitchell Butel, in the spoken part of Cardano, creates a sharply drawn, dark and deeply thoughtful persona of an ambitious intellect trying to survive in a world struggle between the intrigues of the age of Machiavelli and the superstitions of the Inquisition.
Soprano Jane Sheldon as his mother, sings with focused convulsive expression of his caesarean birth in a plague year, reimagining the Renaissance and early Baroque arioso style, while Jessica O’Donoghue, creates a parallel moment of expressive force as his daughter dying of syphilis.
The third take on the fate of women is given to mezzo soprano Anna Fraser, poisoned by the son Giambattista. Simon Lobelson, in this role and as the ailing archbishop sings with firm smoothness, while tenor Andrew Goodwin as the kleptomaniac other son, Aldo, sustains pure expressive tonal evenness.
Janice Muller’s direction is simple, direct and effectively lit by Matt Cox. The AV blend could have tolerated more edge in the amplified spoken word to cut through the swirling musical sounds that always threatened to overwhelm their rationality.
Conductor Jack Symonds controlled the balance of iridescent purity and gritty noise in the sound to create an aural equivalent reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s image of a person lying in the gutter staring at the stars.