13 May 2008
Nono's Prometeo at Royal Festival Hall
Prometeo is so radically different that it’s almost incomprehensible heard from preconceived assumptions of what music “ought” to be.
Gotham Chamber Opera’s latest project, The Tempest Songbook, continues to explore the possibilities of unconventional spaces and unconventional programs that the company has made its hallmark. The results were musically and theatrically thought-provoking, and left me wanting more.
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.
On Friday February 20, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a production by Nicholas Muni originally seen at Cincinnati Opera.
Prometeo is so radically different that it’s almost incomprehensible heard from preconceived assumptions of what music “ought” to be.
What we think of as music now stems from 19th century orchestral tradition, which suggests that music should fit standard formats, to be listened to passively, often as no more than wallpaper. Nono’s ideas were revolutionary, not just in terms of his politics, but because he wanted to challenge the way we listen to music. Nono addresses the very fundamentals of why we have music at all, and its role in civilization. To penetrate just how radical Prometeo is, we have to approach it on its own terms without prejudgement.
Prometheus brought fire from the gods to mortals. It’s no accident that Nono had been fascinated by the myth from his youth. The fire Prometheus brought to the world was enlightenment. The Gods were enraged because Prometheus had broken their monopoly of power, so they condemned him to suffer eternally. Prometheus is an archetype idealist, who is compelled to seek knowledge and share it with the world. But his fate is to be destroyed for doing so. What does that tell us about idealism ? What is the destiny of those who, like Prometheus are the bringers of change ? What is the role of music in civilization? What is the role of an artist in society ? Why do people persist in seeking enlightenment when there’s no reward? Why does civilization matter at all ?
Meaning matters in Nono tremendously. But finding meaning, whatever it may be, means listening pro-actively, engaging in what’s happening: this isn’t music to audit passively. Listening is part of the process by which it “becomes” intelligible and the more you put into it, the more that you get from it. The piece isn’t even something that can be judged in conventional terms because its impact depends so much on how a listener has synthesized what he or she has heard. We’ve become conditioned to assuming that music is something to be consumed, and categorized in judgemental constraints. Yet things weren’t always this way.
The South Bank’s Fragments of Venice series was very well planned because it placed Nono’s music in context with Monteverdi. Why Monteverdi ? That’s a good question. Nono came from Venice, a city where water, land and sky converge seamlessly. Moreover, in Venice the past co-exists with the present. Wherever you go in the old quarter, there are vestiges of Venice’s glorious past as a centre of the then “civilised” world. As a young man, Nono would listen to music in Venice’s ancient churches : an unworldly haven from the hot, bustling clamour outside. Long before the western symphonic tradition developed into what we know now, that was how Europeans experienced sophisticated music.
Prometeo connects directly to that pre-modern approach to music. The primary function of church music was to inspire heightened spirituality. Whether audiences were religious or not was (and still is) beside the point. Church going was a profoundly artistic experience. Elaborate gothic and baroque decoration served to glorify the message of God. Wealthy merchants paid, but the beneficiaries were ordinary church goers for whom the church was a dazzling blaze of colour, sound and scent quite beyond their grim normal lives. The Mass was theatre. So Prometeo follows that deeper tradition, cloaking deep spiritual content with music.
Medieval and baroque polyphony are also the seeds of Nono’s approach to text. Most of the congregation didn’t understand Latin, but all knew the basics of what the Mass was about. They didn’t need to know every single word verbatim, but instead, meditated on spiritual meaning. So Nono uses fragments of text in many languages, spanning centuries of cultural history, from the ancient Greeks to Walter Benjamin. He breaks words down into the tiniest fragments. Syllables and even single letters are intoned in different progression. Such “lines” as they are, are sung by different voices in layers, so sounds overlap and modify each other. This is deliberate. We have to listen more carefully than ever to what is being conveyed. It’s supposed to be a challenge. We’ve become too accustomed to assuming that if we “hear” something we know what it means : hence the deluge of trendy jargonese we hear so much today which sounds good but means nothing. Nono makes us concentrate intensely on what we hear, or think we hear. Words are only shorthand for conveying ideas often can’t be easily expressed. André Richard (spatial sound director) apologizes for talking in four languages at the same time, but that’s exactly what Nono is doing. It means forming ideas with more care and listening more intently, because there is so much more outside the box, beyond linguistics.
There are quotations from Hölderlin’s Schicksalslied, "Doch uns ist gegeben auf keine Stätte zu ruhn……” the fragments of sound curling over and over in restless turmoil. Then, brilliantly, Nono uses the images of water being hurled from cliff to cliff, shattering into spray and yet re-forming into waves which again shatter, endlessly, “blinding wie Wasser von Klippe zu Klippe”. They hurtle ever downwards, “Hinab ! Hinab !” This is powerfully expressed in the spiralling downward flow of the music. Indeed, the flow goes “underground” for a while emerging later, to be glimpsed in tiny snatches of “hinab!” or fragments of the word which occur later in the piece. Following with the text actually limits the understanding that comes from real listening. Conventional narrative this isn’t, but you need to know Nono to know.
This fragmentation also has meaning in itself. Prometeo works on many different levels. There are short, elusive references to other texts, other music embedded throughout. You certainly don’t need to recognise them all at once, but again, that’s the concept. Like pop ups in Windows, the references can lead you to read further, listen further and learn, far beyond the confines of the piece itself. It’s a panorama which opens other panoramas. Indeed, Nono even builds into the score comments and quotes which don’t appear in the performance, but exist to inform the performers about interpretation. His instructions even include marking some letters in capitals, even within words, like “HiNaB”. What you hear is only a point of entry. The deeper you go into Prometeo, the more there is to learn, if of course, you want to. We have a choice. When Prometheus brought light to mankind it was a precious gift, to be cherished. It’s important to approach Prometeo without any prejudgement, but once one is aware that there is meaning within, it’s not wise to ignore it. The explosion in information technology gives us tools, but do we use them wisely ? “Non spederla ! kei pleistôn (do not lose it, this weak messianic power!)” goes the First Interlude, which acts as a kind of commentary on what has gone before. Civilization wasn’t won easily, but can so easily be squandered.
Nono died before the revolution in information technology that is the internet. Nowadays anyone can play with a search engine and produce “instant erudition” which looks impressive, but is in fact superficial if not downright fraudulent. Instead of real learning, we have “google intellectuals” whose superficial expertise makes a mockery of the real business of learning, which is to assess and process, and create original ideas. So the Second Interlude is entirely instrumental, beyond words at all. Crucially it’s positioned between the Three Voices, where we’re reminded of the “la debole forza” (the “weak power”) of enlightenment, and the final Second Stasimon, which reaffirms Nono’s faith in the imperative of civilization. Words matter desperately, but words can also be noise. For a few minutes, they disappear, so when they return, we absorb them more effectively, remembering that their absence.
Much is made of Nono’s use of space. Again though, spatial arrangements aren’t an aim in themselves, but integral to the meaning of the piece. Nono is reminding us that sound is ambient, it comes from all around. It is up to us to process, from whatever position we may be in at any given time. This too subverts the conventional notion of music as a commodity to be consumed passively. Prometeo subverts the very idea that what we hear should be fixed in any given form. Rather it makes us realise that what we hear comes from one perspective among many. The four compact orchestras are placed in different places around wherever the performance is held. Each performance will differ according to where it takes place. There’s always an element of spontaneity, of using resources where they are found so there’s no “definitive” setting. On this occasion, the Royal Box provided an excellent place to position the string unit, between the main orchestra in the front, back and side. Other boxes were used for the euphonium, for the glass instruments, for the voices. These days when most of us get our music through recording, it’s easy to forget that recordings are only snapshots in time, frozen forever by mechanical means. Music, in the real world, is something far more alive and fluid.
What was impressive about these performances, particularly the one on the 10th, was the feeling that dynamic energy was flowing between the disparate groups of performers. Nono uses sound as sculpture. Although there are two conventional conductors, André Richard is the sculptor who pulls everything together, giving four dimensional shape to what we hear, from whatever position we may be in. The score is amazingly complex: the sheet music is a metre long and almost as wide, to incorporate the detail. There are sounds here made by unusual instruments, by unusual techniques and sounds which exist only in electronic mediums. Yet Richard made it possible for us to hear all the fragments, from the circular rubbing of the glass bowls to the faint but insistent tapping of bow on violin. Precision is important – the singers use tuning forks to keep them on pitch. Sometimes they cup their hands to extend their voices like miniature wind instruments, often they whisper barely above the threshold of audibility. Yet again, this quietness, throughout the piece, is its soul. There are moments where Nono marks the score pppppp, where the “music” reverberates in the imagination of the listener. Nono writes “islands” in the music and in the instrumentation, but islands don’t exist in isolation. It is Richard who creates the flow that keeps the islands connected. We don’t, yet, have enough music vocabulary to describe what he does, but it is a new dimension in sound creation, a new form of musicianship.
As someone in the audience noted, The Royal Festival Hall is a strange place to hear such disturbing music. The original performance was held in a disused church in Venice, which is now which is now closed to the public. The performers were placed in a huge wooden structure designed by the architect Renzo Piano like the inside of a violin, so the sound would resonate inside the structure, and then inside the church and beyond. At a workshop on Prometeo held on 4th May, Enno Senft, bassist of the London Sinfonietta, recalled how the shaky structure added to the performance because it gave a sense of danger, as if the structure could collapse at any time. Yet this, too, is relevant to meaning. Piano’s structure embodied the idea that civilization is fragile. Stability can’t be taken for granted. Health and Safety regulations now would make it impossible to recreate that first performance, so perhaps its memory should remain in our minds. The first performance remains as a ghost, just as the ghosts of ancient Venice live on in the present. Nono didn’t plan this strange juxtaposition of time and place, but it’s a valid way of thinking about Prometeo and its panoramic vision of human experience.
Prometeo’s subtitle is “The Tragedy of Listening”. This refers to the Greek notion of tragedy yet also to the modern sense of the word. Prometheus brings light to the world but suffers for having done so. Is the fate of Prometheus that of anyone who brings about innovation, even if it’s for the ultimate benefit of others? Are mortals fundamentally incapable of appreciating art, innovation and civilization? Or is barbarism inevitable? Yet for Prometheus and for idealists like Nono, there is no other choice. It’s their destiny to strive for enlightenment no matter what the personal cost. They are driven, like the forces that create the waves that shatter against the cliffs. The faint flame of faith in the ultimate value of learning is kept alive as long as there are those prepared top listen. “Ascolta ! Ascolta ! (listen ! listen !)”. We may not understand, and may never understand, but if we don’t even try, Prometheus’s gift and what it symbolizes, will have been in vain.
Congratulations to the South Bank for having the vision to make these performances possible. Prometeo isn’t easy listening, and it isn’t cheap to produce. But its cultural signifigance is very great indeed, and quite likely won’t be appreciated fully in our time. There have been 60 performances in Europe but this was only the first in Britain. Yet, ultimately, it doesn’t matter what popular reaction might be. Like Prometheus, it is enough that someone has enough faith in the fundamental value of art, whether or not it pleases mass audiences. This is why the South Bank matters. It has the courage and foresight to recognise Prometeo and bring it to Britain at last.
Please see the review of the recent Col Legno SACD recording of Prometeo.
Anne Ozorio © 2008
Reprinted from Seen and Heard with permission of the author.