Nono: Prometeo

London Sinfonietta/RAM Manson Ensemble/Experimental Studio Freiburg Synergy Vocals

Royal Festival Hall, London, 15 May 2008 5 stars

Luigi Nono

Adorno, the great musicologist and philosopher famed for the postulation that music encodes social allegory in its internal details of composition, would have loved Luigi Nono's Prometeo.

It is a work, perhaps it is an opera though taxonomy is secondary to effect here, that conveys solely through music and dramatics (or through the absence of dramatics), and not through text, the political/philosophical point its composer is seeking to make.

That point, that the great ideal in life should always be to think for ourselves, to keep striving for what seems out of reach (which the figure of Prometeo represents in the work), is communicated in a number of ways.

It is primarily established through Nono's refusal to frame and define his work with a unilateral, dictatorial, overarching narrative. Prometeo is privileged with a distinct lack of conventional theatrical hierarchies of character, conflict, speech and image. It is shaped rather by the subordination of text and narrative to the pure experience of sound, a sound into which the poetic and symbolic text of Massimo Cacciari's version of the Prometheus myth is collapsed (through fragmentation, through incorporation into the scores of the musicians, and through collage). Along with this corruption of text, Nono choreographs a sort of non-image whereby his 'opera' includes no actors or set, at least in the usual sense.

The normal directional space of the concert hall/theatre is moreover subverted by the placement of 14 or 15 small to medium ensembles of singers or instrumentalists around the space. At the centre of all this is the sound designer, who is given the task of carefully managing and manipulating the sounds of each ensemble as they happen around him/her (at the Royal Festival Hall performances this role was deftly taken by Andre Richard, who was Nono's original collaborator in this role). The complicated surround sound enclosure that is effectively set up by the performance situation of the work contributes, as do the internal details of the music, to its multivocal effect. And even though some of the potency of the piece is automatically lost if you sit outside the enclosure (at the RFH such tickets were sold at a heavily discounted price with a strong disclaimer at point of sale), the democratising and engulfing power of the experience within the perimeter, in these performances at least, was worth any necessary compromise elsewhere.

The dramatic force of Prometeo is thus entirely embedded in the music; we meet a sort of infra-dramatics in this work that is profoundly antagonistic to normal codes of the theatre. Each listener feels and hears Nono and Cacciari's version of the myth, they do not follow a circumscribed dramatic narrative as would usually be required of them (even the structure of the work absorbs this ambiguity – it is made up of three main 'Islands', two Interludes, two sections entitled 'Three Voices', and two Stasimon's, the latter being an old Greek chant form). The essence of any meaning and narrative that can be detected is, in perception, entirely subject specific (much more so than other music-theatrical works). Of course such a complicated situation is always in danger of teetering on the brink of chaos. What makes all this diffusion interesting is that Nono's music is so entirely and completely compelling. But compositional unity and nuance of course needs to be met by the same standards in performance, and the almost unbelievably focused and precise efforts of those involved at the RFH, at least on the night I attended (the second of the two), succeeded in imbuing the spectacle with an integrated, univocal force.

The two conductors, especially the slightly more dominant Diego Masson (each man took charge of various groupings at different points, with their directions communicated via small screens placed strategically around the hall) marshalled the performers to great heights of ensemble focus. The subtle gradations of pacing, and of dynamics, were completely enthralling to witness. The musicians' own exactness in the execution of their highly fragmented and pointillistic lines (often individuals are silent for minutes at time, until they are required to play just one note, articulated just so, in unison with their many colleagues) matched their leaders' commitment and densely virtuousic performances. Andre Richard raised each of the participant's contributions to the level of collective transcendence in his precipitous sound washes and flanging echoes. The acoustic of the RFH has never sounded so sympathetic, so alive; the sounds that travelled around the auditorium called to mind some sort of celestial shelter at the end of the world.

Diego MassonContinuing Nono's late drift towards silence and stillness, Prometeo rarely rises above a whisper (though it does so to great effect on a number of occasions), and it very often returns to bare and beautiful forms of the three most basic intervals of Western music, the octave, fifth, and fourth. These are frequently contrasted both by dense chromaticism and by very slight decays (such as the overlaying of a fifth at the semitone above or below). But the abiding effect of the tones of the work is one of tonal-serial simplicity. This effect is enriched by Nono's unsurpassed ear for colour, which in this work is always shown to be alive to unique combinations and doublings between wind, brass and strings, and his decision to include no percussion highlights the revolutionary rhetorical aspect of the piece. This rhetoric of silence and delicate concentration is broken only very rarely, such as in the tumults of the Hölderlin section, and in these moments the performers negotiated arresting dynamic fissures that resonated long after they had ceased.

The vocal elements, so dominant, so important to the work's affect, were handled with the same level of skill and intensity as were the instrumental ones. The singers, both collectively and individually (the soloists of the first of the 'Three Voices' sections deserve special mention here), achieved unexpectedly high standards of tuning accuracy, of projection, and of dynamic subtlety. Again like the instrumentalists they handled their complicated and concentrated parts with utter conviction. The many reminiscences and recalls of the score always thrilled at each return, and the bare expression of each singer met the emotional pitch of the work at just the right level of personal identification, and commitment.

The music of Prometeo, heavily indebted to the Japanese concept of Ma (where the silences between the notes are as important as the notes themselves) as it is, could easily fall flat with an unsympathetic audience. It was thus a testament to the power of the RFH's production that nary a whisper could be heard throughout the work's 140-minute (no interval) duration. The lengthy silence that greeted the drawn out and barely audible final, devastating (yet life-affirming) sonority qualified the work's own internal silences, and the overwhelmingly positive reception the performers were ultimately bathed in was entirely justified, and deserved. If only live music, I was selfish enough to wonder, was always like this.  

By Stephen Graham