Saturday 10 May 2008

Prometeo, 10 May 2008, Royal Festival Hall

Royal Festival Hall

Caroline Chaniolleau and Mathias Jung (narrators)
Synergy Vocals
London Sinfonietta
Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble
Diego Masson and Patrick Bailey (conductors)

Experimental Studio for Acoustic Arts, Freiburg (live electronic realisation)
André Richard (spatial sound direction and concept artistic co-ordination)
Michael Acker and Reinhold Braig (sound projection and electronic realisation)

One might be ungracious and ask why it has taken twenty-four years to perform Prometeo in thus country, but let us instead express our delight that the Southbank Centre's excellent festival, Luigi Nono: Fragments of Venice has now reached its climax with this long-awaited premiere. It would, I think, be uncontroversial to describe this performance as a triumph for all - and there are many - involved. Indeed, there seemed to be a sense from those who had attended the previous night's performance, that this performance had come together all the more strongly on account of the additional experience.

During the pre-concert discussion, André Richard spoke of having transformed the Royal Festival Hall - perhaps not the ideal space for such a work - into a musical instrument, and this was very much how it felt. Richard also pointed to the Monteverdian quality of the four instrumental ensembles - seven strings, flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, and trombone - positioned around the audience. The combination of such instrumental composition, voices, and the all-important spatial dimension - not just the placing of instrumentalists and voices, but also that of the twenty-seven speakers, to be understood not as agents of amplification but as points at which music could take place - inevitably brought to mind the great Venetian polychoral works of the past. St Mark's, in a sense, was brought to the South Bank and transformed. But equally so was Venice itself, or at least the Venice of Nono's understanding (for which, Bettina Ehrhardt's beautiful, moving film, A Trail on the Water, available on DVD, should be considered mandatory). The twists and turns, the lapping of the waves, the transfer between East and West were voiced; indeed, the interchanges, and landscapes of Venetian, European, and world history were present throughout this retelling of the Prometheus myth. Moreover, the words, a fascinating assemblage from Massimo Cacciari, are far more readily audible than many commentators - have they actually been listening? - would have one believe.

For most importantly, we were both enabled and compelled to listen, as the repeated injunction 'Ascolta!' suggested we might and must. There is something quite extraordinary about Nono's music, which, despite its 'difficulty' and its length - two and a quarter hours with, quite rightly, no interval - awards us the privilege and the duty to listen, most likely as we have never listened before. I doubt that anyone in the audience will listen quite in the same way again following this experience. In this sense, the lack of stage action is crucial: we can only perceive through listening: in a sense, the culmination of Wagner's expressed desire, having created an invisible orchestra, subsequently to create an invisible theatre. The hall had truly become the instrument of which Richard spoke and no less had it become the stage.

The outstanding musical performances contributed so much to this. It seems invidious to single out any contributor, not least given Nono's deconstruction of the Romantic hierarchy of musical performance. But the two conductors - none of whom is at the centre - shared their wealth of experience with the combined forces of the London Sinfonietta and RAM Manson Ensemble. There was, incidentally, no sense of the young players of the latter being anything other than equals with their more experienced colleagues. Both shone especially in the only purely instrumental movement, the second Interlude. The great demands placed upon singers and instrumentalists were impeccably met and amply rewarded throughout. This was truly an experience that no one is likely to forget, an experience all the more necessary when lazy short-cuts and attempts to 'compromise' with the audience have become all the rage, and not just on the other side of the Atlantic. A mishmash of re-re-heated neo-Romantic pastiche or lazy minimalism may be more overt in the work of some American composers, but it is perhaps all the more dangerous in Europe given its (slightly) greater cover here. (Calling something 'post-modern' must not be permitted to forestall rigorous criticism.) The audience, at this performance commendably mixed, emphatically does not need compromise; it needs to be challenged; it needs to listen and to be presented with something to which it is truly worth listening. Prometeo may be a 'tragedy in listening', and one can never be in doubt concerning the human suffering that yet again provoked Nono into composing this work, but the outcome is far from tragic, in that once again it provides us with hope.