Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Nono’s Prometeo @ Royal Festival Hall, London

9 May 2008


The less said about Prometeo the better.

Southbank Centre

Southbank Centre (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

Contemplative silence may be a more appropriate response to the UK premiere of Nono’s late opus than the prolixity offered in hushed tones by some commentators of the great Italian revolutionary’s work.

It’s tempting to review the concert with a blank page, as a nod to the spirit of deconstruction that pervades the piece.

However, a little help may be needed if something is to be communicated about the event. We are told that hearing Prometeo is a deeply personal experience. Describing it can therefore only be subjective and any one response is as valid as another. Those transported to another plane are just experiencing it in a different way from the people, and there were a number, who found they had to leave the auditorium before the performance was over. Nono certainly pushes the observer to the limit. Two hours and 20 minutes, without interval, is a long time when the promised plateau of serenity doesn’t appear.

There are plenty of really interesting sounds and a bundle of stimulating intellectual concepts here. Added to this is the liberating feeling of what is essentially a basic meditative experience. That’s not to belittle or undervalue what can be one of the most profound states a human being can realise but a meditative mood can be, and usually is, achieved without the aid of music.

On a conceptual level, Nono has all sorts of things to say about the conventional concertgoing experience. Removing musicians from the usual platform arrangement at one end of the hall and spreading them around the auditorium is less of a common occurrence than it should be. With the aid of enhanced electronic sound (something like 24 speakers are used), this allows the music to swirl around the head and causes one to swivel and gyrate in an attempt to locate the source of sounds. It becomes a visual as well as an auditory experience. It’s a shame that, as an audience, we were all sat in fixed seating facing in the same direction we usually are.

As a life-long communist, Nono sought to democratise the concert experience. Two conductors obviously has a practical purpose, with four orchestras spread around the 360 degree environment, but it also dispenses with the usual autocratic and hierarchical conventions. By the time he wrote the work in 1984, this was neither new or revolutionary but it’s all good stuff.

His approach to text is admirable too. He gives us no straightforward narrative, even though the work is ostensibly about Prometheus, thrown out from the company of his fellow gods for giving fire to humans. Instead, the text, a compilation from many sources, is fragmented, sometimes to mere syllables. He even intends some of it just for the performers and not the audience. This is the sort of thing that’s been done in the theatre by people like Peter Handke for decades and these are thrilling and highly stimulating techniques. But what does it all amount to?

At one point, Diego Masson (one of the conductors, with Patrick Bailey) was fighting physically with the gigantic score which threatened to topple off its under-sized music stand. I’m sure I wasn’t alone at that point in having a parallel feeling of struggle. Wagner, and he’s not alone, challenges his audiences with long grey passages but he ultimately rewards you, plus some, for staying the course. I left the performance of Prometeo a little nonplussed, really not sure whether I had just seen an emperor romping around without his clothes on or if at some point I was going to have a Road to Damascus epiphany and realise that this is the greatest work of art of the 20th Century. The latter hasn’t happened yet, I’m afraid, but I’m still hopeful.

I may have fought shy of delivering a thunderous silence as a response to Prometeo but I have embraced the deconstruction mentality by dispensing with the star system we usually use. It’s purely in the interest of violating expectations and certainly not because the work or the excellent performance, by the London Sinfonietta, RAM Manson Ensemble, Synergy Vocals and soloists, merit no stars.



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