Friday 18 March 2016

For the Anniversary of the Paris Commune (18 March 1871): Women's Revolutionary Experience in Nono's Al gran sole carico d'amore

A male-dominated picture if ever there were one...

From my After Wagner: Histories of Modernist Music Drama from 'Parsifal' to Nono:

Al gran sole [carico d’amore], composed between 1972 and 1974, and premiered in Milan in 1975, was first directed by Yuri Lyubimov, head of Moscow’s Taganka Theatre. Lyubimov was already a specialist from stagings of repertoire works in many of the techniques he and Nono, as joint librettists, drawing upon a vast assemblage of other writers, would employ in Al gran sole: montage: simultaneity, representation of one character – insofar as ‘character’ does not mislead – by several actors or singers. Those ‘laterna magika’ techniques familiar from Intolleranza [1960] may thereby be understood to have been rejuvenated and extended. The historical scenes presented in this azione scenica – Nono by now rejected entirely the term ‘opera’, though so of course had Wagner – are told from different perspectives, albeit with a privileged place, allotted to women and their often unspoken, let alone unsung, histories, inverting the ‘normal’ order of things. (In a sense, though not necessarily in the same sense, [Olga] Neuwirth would attempt something similar in American Lulu.) Differing perspectives all serve to focus attention back upon the present, always a construct rather than a given, a state of affairs dramatically heightened by the productive tension between Nono’s present and our own. Texts originate – in alphabetical order, so as not to imply priority – with Brecht, Tania Bunke (the Argentine-East German ‘Tania the Guerilla’, who fought in the Bolivian insurgency alongside Che Guevara), Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, the Bulgarian Communist Georgi Dimitrov, Gorki, Gramsci, Lenin, Marx, the Paris Communard Louise Michel (herself a ‘character’ in the action), Cesare Pavese, Rimbaud, and the Cuban revolutionaries Celia Sánchez and Haydée Santamaria, as well as other popular sources, such as the Internationale and two Russian revolutionary songs. Those sources are in themselves indicative; one would hardly expect that gathering of writers to be transformed into a paean to American militarism and consumer capitalism.

By the same token, however, the specific nature of the assemblage, just as in Berio’s Sinfonia – or, for that matter, Bach’s music for the Mass in B minor – is the thing. Three European societies are visited in the throes of revolution or would-be revolution. We observe, construct, participate in the 1871 Paris Commune, the Russia of 1905, and the industrial travails of post-Second World War Turin (‘around 1950’). Nono’s and Italy’s own Cold War(s) find themselves situated both within that broader revolutionary context and within specific conflicts of Christian Democracy against Italian Communism, and – recalling Intolleranza – the problem of migration, in this case Italian workers from the south seeking work in the richer north, more specifically those car factories to which Nono took his music and to which friends such as [Maurizio] Pollini and [Claudio] Abbado took theirs.

European history is for Nono now understood through the prism of recent developments such as the Chilean coup that had overthrown Salvador Allende in 1973 – a setback that had sent shockwaves through the European Left, ensuring that Allende’s government and the succeeding terror under Augusto Pinochet would retain emblematic status for decades to come – and the American invasion of Vietnam. Nono’s collage-like vision also encompasses conflicts in the Third World, as it was still called: Cuba, Bolivia, and Vietnam.[1] Revolutionary situations are thus brought into contact with each other, workers of the world uniting, that dialectic of engagement standing at the very heart of Nono’s understanding. For instance, following a prelude in which we hear words from Guevara, Michel, and Marx, the first scene has Tania Bunke question – such questioning being crucial to Nono’s and indeed to our critical framework – Brecht on the Paris Communards. The expression and expressive form of that questioning is entrusted, as the score has it, to ‘chorus and orchestra’. As in Moses und Aron, only more so, we might understand, with the composer’s warrant, the principal protagonist to be the chorus; yet behind it, there lies, consciously or otherwise, another chorus: Wagner’s Greek Chorus of the orchestra.

The year 2009 marked something of a red-letter day for Al gran sole, Europe witnessing two major stagings. The first was at the Salzburg Festival, directed by Katie Mitchell. Peter Konwitschny brought his production, originally seen in Hamburg, to Leipzig later that year. Konwitschny’s short-lived appointment as director of productions at Oper Leipzig was an important factor in this case, enabling him to bring to his new house an already-existing production, which would nevertheless be modified in context, as Nono would have hoped. Likewise, in Salzburg, Jürgen Flimm’s artistic directorship was crucial. He had also produced the work before, for Frankfurt in 1978, his first opera production and the premiere of Nono’s revised version of the work. Although, on this occasion, Flimm ceded that role to Katie Mitchell, the role of individual champions should not be underestimated.

Despite the obvious attractions and relevance to the work of Mitchell’s overtly metatheatrical approach, Konwitschny’s attempt to elicit more of a conventional revolutionary narrative actually cohered better in practice. Mitchell’s framing of the artwork and its production – in the ordinary as well as the theatrical sense – seems often to work better when applied to a work that does not already contain so much of its metatheatrical apparatus to begin with. For instance, her 2009 After Dido, for the English National Opera at the Young Vic Theatre, ‘a live music and film performance inspired by Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas’, at whose core stood a performance of Purcell’s opera, was able to go beyond the work to tell, in the words of the publicity material, ‘three contemporary urban stories of grief, lost love, departure, and death,’ which unfolded in self-contained locations on different sections of the stage. Yet After Dido was also to be found in ‘the making of’ these stories, unfolding before our eyes and ears. That ‘making of’ was not so much a story in itself, after the manner of the Prologue to Ariadne auf Naxos; nevertheless, it acquired a dramatic thrust of its own, not least since it was with those ‘workings’ that the piece opened, as the prologue to a radio broadcast, during which we heard recorded snatches of other theatre music by Purcell. (Dido’s own Prologue is, of course missing, the missing parts of the work having in the past offered a spur to composer-conductors such as Britten, as well as to directors such as Mitchell.[2]) Applying similar techniques to Al gran sole seemed less necessary and, for all the technical prowess involved, did not entirely silence suspicions that a ‘one size fits all’ metatheatricality was being imposed upon the work. Konwitschny’s more ‘operatic’ approach came across as the more radical, even the more interventionist, and also the more dramatically and politically fruitful.

It was both heartening and instructive to witness the warmth of the reception and the size of the house for the last night of Konwitschny’s Al gran sole. The immediacy of the almost ‘operatic’ experience came as quite a contrast after the familiar Mitchell onstage screening and re-screening of scenes – and not solely in terms of staging. For an interesting and commendable aspect of both productions was how closely integrated staging and musical performance seemed to be. Whereas Konwitschny, aided once again by Helmut Brade’s designs, took one very much into the heart of Nono’s revolutionary ‘provocations’ of which Nono spoke as being the origins of all his work, the Salzburg performance had tended to look back at such matters as more a thing of the past, presenting a more æstheticised experience.

Much doubtless depends upon how relevant today one considers the writings and experiences of the men and women involved; or, to put it another way, how ripe one considers the time for a more sober, historical, even distanced assessment of concerns, which, following the events of 1989, might no longer be considered to be our own. In addition, there is a strong ideological impetus to claim those concerns as of little relevance, not least from the standpoint of the apparent ‘victors’ of German unification, on either side of the erstwhile Iron Curtain. Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, such an impetus seems at least as strong on the so-called Left as the Right; indeed, one of the more striking aspects of thoughtful right-wing commentary on the financial crisis has been its willingness to look to Marx.

In any case, more direct revolutionary experience, as opposed to the concerns of modern-day political economy, was granted heightened relevance by the location, Leipzig, where, as the production team pointed out, there was no need to ask whether the audience would understand the barrage of revolutionary texts presented, at least when it came to Marx, Lenin, Brecht, and Gorki.[3] Or perhaps there actually was every reason in 2009 to question that belief; old revolutionaries have a tendency to forget that the world has ‘moved on’. At any rate, the timing of the premiere on 8 October would have made its point to some at least in the specific audience: the eve of the twentieth anniversary of what was the largest protest to date in the GDR’s history, 75000 demonstrators attending the Leipzig Monday Peace Prayers, bravely defying a regime that had just congratulated its Chinese counterpart for its ‘success’ in dealing with demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.[4] In little more than a week, Erich Honecker would have resigned. The role assumed by the then Gewandhauskapellmeister, Kurt Masur, in the events of 1989 is well known. Many in the orchestra would have played under him; some of the audience would have heard him conduct at the Gewandhaus, just on the other side of the the Karl-Marx-Platz – now, once again, the Augustusplatz – from the Opera.

There were concrete settings: the Paris Commune for the first part and Turin for the second part’s industrial unrest, although that did not prevent additional voices – and faces – from participating. Lenin as chorus leader was a witty touch, likewise the Punch and Judy politicians’ act of Adolphe Thiers and Bismarck. The latter pair, even in the original ‘text’, if one can speak of such a thing, veered still more closely to the ‘operatic’ or even to the commedia dell’arte. But it was with the Gorki-Brecht tale of the Mother – did Nono here have an echo of the Prigioniero Mother in his mind? – and Pavese’s prostitute Deola, that Konwitschny went for the jugular, particularly with respect to the factory strike. Malevolence was brought to vivid theatrical life, not only on the part of the factory owner – though there was something splendidly agitprop about him and about the worker who betrayed his comrades – but also, more crucially, with respect to the entire mode of production upon which such structures were based. Nevertheless, an almost traditional evocation of theatrical or Parsifal-like compassion, true in spirit to Nono’s own responses, won out with respect to the workers hemmed in by the walls of Brade’s designs. There was anger, of course, but the human spirit came first, recalling Dallapiccola, especially in the defiance of the Mother’s son, Pavel, a martyr and true hero to the socialist cause.

Every member of the cast contributed wholeheartedly and it would be more than typically invidious to single out anyone in particular. Iris Vermillion’s mother provoked, however, perhaps the most powerful emotional response, through the human dignity of a lonely yet true contralto voice: quintessential Nono, one might say, in thought and in practice. Tuomas Pursio’s Pavel was just as impressive: an angry young man who could so easily have gone off the rails, he was in a sense saved by the desperation of the situation: his finest hour. Pursio exhibited a sense of dangerous attraction, which could finally be focused rather than dissipated. Perhaps though there was also a warning (from Konwitschny, if not from Nono), of how revolutionaries might go astray, the erstwhile GDR proffering an obvious example. Moreover, in the context of the relationships explored above of both Henze and Nono with their home and quasi-adoptive countries, the intervention of an Italian composer in a ‘German’ matter offers another standpoint from which one might consider such questions.

Neither librettist nor composer left any stage directions – an interesting case from our standpoint. Were the vigilantes of ‘fidelity’ to the work to come across this, who knows what they might make of it? It is unlikely, however, given that their energies appear concentrated more or less entirely upon ‘standard repertoire’, a telling point in itself.

And here, from La Scala, are Abbado and Lyubimov bringing Al gran sole into existence. (I am afraid I cannot embed it here, but the link should work.)

[1] Nono would most likely have rejected the term ‘collage’. He certainly spoke unfavourably of it in his 1959 Darmstadt lecture, ‘Geschichte und Gegenwart der Musik von Heute’, though it is not entirely clear whether he intended this as a general critique or in specific reference to Cage: ‘The collage-method has its origin in colonialist thought, and there is no functional difference between a hollow Indian incantation drum, which serves in a European household as a dustbin, and the orientalisms which are used by an occidental culture to make its aesthetical tinkering with material more attractive.’
[2] Britten did not go so far as to compose new music for Dido and Aeneas. However, in the edition he made with Imogen Holst – less far-reaching in its interventions than for the more problematical semi-opera, The Fairy Queen – he added at the end of the second act a trio for the Sorceress and witches, borrowing music from The Indian Queen, a chorus from the 1687 Welcome Song, Z.335, and a dance from the Overture to the play, Sir Anthony Love or, The Rambling Lady. He also went beyond additions of dynamic markings, phrasing, and articulation, to realise the harpsichord continuo part. The Britten version, conducted by the (new) composer, may be heard on in a 1959 BBC studio recording on CD (BBC Legends BBCB 8003-2).
[3] Alexander von Maravić, ‘Post scriptum Leipzig 2009,’ to ‘Die Liebe – vom Leben beladen . Zu Stück und Aufführung. Helmut Brade, Johannes Harneit und Peter Konwitschny im Gespräch mit Albrecht Puhlmann in Hannover 2004,’ in Oper Leipzig programme to Luigi Nono, Unter der großen Sonne von Liebe beladen/Al gran sole carico d’amore (2009), p.37.
[4] Dirk Philipsen, We Were the People: Voices from East Germany’s Revolutionary Autumn of 1989 (Duke University Press: Durham, NC, 1993), p.200.