The three most representative Italian composers of the avant-garde in the period 1930-90 were Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-75), Luciano Berio (1925-2003) and Luigi Nono (1924-90). The first of them is by far the best known here, although he has been neglected recently, but in the field of opera our city has seen such important works as "Il Prigioniero", "Volo di Notte" and "Job". From Berio we heard his important Symphony with the Swingle Singers, but not his operas (Gerardo Gandini wanted to première "Un Re in ascolto", he wasn´t allowed to do it by Kive Staiff, who thought it too risky back in 1998). Nono has been very little interpreted here, and when he came to impart lectures to the Instituto Di Tella four decades ago he spoke mostly about Communism. In Europe, however, he was an essential figure.
Married to Nuria Schönberg (daughter of Arnold, father of twelve-tone music), Nono started in the serial line of his father-in-law though in the Webernian pointillist way, but later veered to electronic music and eventually to a late style of radical experimentalism in the possibilities of the manipulation of sound. And this, plus a dense dialectic net based on the thoughts of philosopher Massimo Cacciari (born 1944) and a panoply of varied texts in three languages, are at the base of "Prometeo (Tragedia dell´ascolto)", written in 1984-5. Colón Contemporáneo assumed the hard challenge of presenting the American première (two performances) and did a remarkably good job.
I differ however in two aspects: a) both the hand programme and various articles give its duration as 2 hs 30´ , but it lasted 2 hs. Why? Moot point. b) They call it an opera and it certainly isn´t (Nono didn´t call it so!): it tells no coherent story and it has no staging. In fact none of his so-called operas by others were recognized as such by the author: "Al gran sol carico d´amore" and "Intolleranza" are specifically called "azioni teatrali" by the composer, who forbade the term "opera" to describe them.
What is "Prometeo", then? A good many things flabbergast me in it. E.g., its description as "Tragedia dell´ascolto" ("Tragedy of hearing"); the only sense I find in it is that Prometheus´ destiny was a tragic one, and that this series of cantatas (for that´s what they are) gives us snatches of his story in purely sonic terms; but probably Cacciari and Nono had something more abstruse in mind. The score is written for instrumental and vocal soloists, mixed chorus, four instrumental groups, three percussionists, two reciters, plus sound processing and spacialisation in real time. An impressive array indeed.
The libretto is made up of fragments by Walter Benjamin, Aeschylus ("Prometheus bound"), Euripides ("Alcestis"), Goethe ("Prometheus"), Herodotus, Hesiod, Hölderlin, Pindar, Schönberg and Sophocles ("Oedipus at Colonus"). ...But most of it is so masked by the sound processing that it remains intentionally unintelligible. That´s why there were no supertitles.
The nine parts are highly complex, made up of a Prologue, "isole" ("islands"), "stasimi" ("that part of Greek tragedy in which the action stalls whilst the choir comments on what is happening"), interludes and "Tre voci" ( vocal trios). Each one has its own sound combination.
I believe the only way to appreciate "Prometeo" is the one adopted by the Colón: only the stalls were sold; the music came from the stage and from bunches of musicians or singers spread on two levels of loges so as to give a true surround sound to the audience. Neither a CD nor a DVD can do justice to Nono´s concept.
The first 40 minutes or so I was very attracted by the most extreme exercise of sound spacialisation I have ever witnessed; the novelty of sensations was very strong and original. However, as time went on I grew less and less interested, and frankly I was glad it didn´t last the announced two hours and a half. The purely intellectual display is impressive: this is completely thought-out music by a masterful technician. The total effect is abstract, not narrative, and quite free of the nasty politicization of so much of his music (it affects his two "azioni teatrali"). After a while he starts repeating his effects to a point in which I couldn´t help thinking that if the work would only last an hour it wouldn´t strain the attention of listeners, at least of my type. Granted, I´m not of nirvanesque bent, and others may tolerate the repetition and stasis better than me. A good deal of the audience seemed to enjoy it (probably many don´t like traditional opera).
Kudos to all involved. The score requires two conductors due to crisscrossing speeds, and Baldur Brönnimann and Lucas Urdampilleta were fully in command. The 49-member Orquesta Nacional y Juvenil del Bicentenario, the Coro Diapasón Sur (Mariano Moruja), the vocal soloists (especially the two sorely tried sopranos in the highest range, Mercedes García Blesa and Ana Santorelli), the seven instrumental soloists , two of them from the London Sinfonietta (plus the German tuba player who made growling sounds like a native Australian didgeridoo), three percussionists and two low-voiced reciters, all did well. Plus the essential know-how of André Richard in the spacialisation of the whole and the collaboration of the EXPERIMENTALSTUDIO des SWR, Freiburg (Germany). Helpful programme notes. A remarkable logistics problem cleanly solved. The Colón is growing more and more adventurous.