Prometheus versus The Minotaur, part two

Friday 16 May 2008

I mentioned that the expanse of Harrison Birtwistle’s music in The Minotaur created a space for the mind the reflect upon the themese of the opera’s drama. This effect in Britwistle’s opera becomes the drama and subject itself in Luigi Nono’s Prometeo, which I saw the following weekend.
Nono’s last opera is “a tragedy of listening”, with no acting, so sets, no staging, no props. This performance was the culmination and raison d’etre of the “Fragments of Venice” festival which I attended in October last year. I was amazed just at having the chance to witness it; not only because it was getting its British premiere a mere 24 years after its first performance in Venice, but because I was organised enough to book tickets seven months in advance and then, when the time had come, remember I had done so.
I had heard this work before on CD and knew that it was one of the major works of Nono’s remarkable late period. For nearly two and a half hours the music proceeds through various “islands” and “stasimons” of sound, always slow to the point of stasis, rarely rising above the quietest levels of the assembled orchestras and chorus, the libretto atomised and overlayered with electronic reverberations and echoes to just beyond the limit of comprehension. It was a work I knew I needed to experience live.
The action, for want of a better word, occurs in the movement of sound around the space. That first performance in Venice took place in the deconsecrated church of San Lorenzo. The London performance was in Royal Festival Hall, surely the least atmospheric and most clinical environment in which Prometeo has yet been performed. The location, and absence of extraneous sound, must have had an effect upon the experience.
One orchestra and the two conductors with the chorus on the stage in front of us, two more small orchestras each side of us, the five soloists in the wings house left, another orchestra overhead in the upper circle, various brass instruments in the boxes above either side, and a string trio in the royal box. A row of sound technicians in the centre of the hall. The musicians very rarely played all together at once; different combinations of instruments and voices circulated around the space, immersing the audience in music without overwhelming them with sheer force of sound.
The libretto was reprinted in the program (and emailed out to ticket holders in advance of the performance) but no surtitles were provided. Each new section was identitfied as it began, but the words were left to stand as part of the overall sound, as mysterious as the music, neither imposing a new narrative upon the listener’s imagination nor distracting from the experience of listening.
Sitting there for over two hours in a space physically unaltered but brought alive by Nono’s music, experiencing it in all four dimensions, made me understand that this is not just a major work but Nono’s magnum opus. Like Fragmente – Stille it is a work about timelessness, but is not so reliant upon pauses, silences. Its quietness is not always hovering just above the inaudible; it is continually filled with sound, albeit a fragile, transparent sound. The material making up that sound remains consistent throughout, but its nature changes in tone and atmosphere from one section to the next. The hushed stasis and subsumed, pulverised language render this opera simultaneously empty and full, testing musician and listener by tearing as much as possible away, and finding that coherence can still be found amidst the fragments that remain.