“Prometheus”, Now and Then

Forty years later, the work of the great Venetian master Luigi Nono (1924-1990) has been restaged by the Venice Biennale in the former church of San Lorenzo, a place wanted and chosen by the composer, whose hundredth birthday was January 29.

Versione Italiana

Where it was, but not how it was. Luigi Nono’s Prometheus, restaged by the Venice Biennale forty years after its first performance in the former church of San Lorenzo, a place wanted and chosen by the composer, who passed away in 1990 and whose hundredth birthday was marked on January 29, is not – and could not be – the same work that the public heard in September 1984.

Furthermore, an “as it was” would not be possible, first of all because every musical performance is, in fact, unique. But even more so because in 1984 the church was lined with an extraordinary multi-level wooden ark designed by Renzo Piano: a “ship” which was also a prodigious musical instrument, and which later served as a model for other architects in the design of new theatres.

Exterior of the Chiesa di San Lorenzo
The public waiting to enter for the premiere of Prometheus

After the performances in Venice, Piano’s ark went to Milan where Prometheus – co-produced with the Teatro Alla Scala – was revived in its definitive version at the Ansaldo in 1985. After that, there are no more traces of the use of the structure, and the ark probably ended up in some warehouse, despite the fact that as early as September 1984, with great foresight, four city councilors from different parties had urged the city of Venice to permanently maintain Piano’s creation in San Lorenzo – which is now home to Ocean Space TBA21–Academy. The story is remembered by the Venetian composer Nicola Cisternino, (author, among other things, of a volume dedicated to Luigi Nono released in 2021 by Il Poligrafo) who has a precious collection of documents from the time.

Thus where it was, but not how it was. This is also true because in the original presentation a key role in the deliberately non-scenic installation was played by the conception of the lights designed by the painter Emilio Vedova, which has not been proposed again now.

One can get an idea of the original installations and the development of the projects for the new Prometheus from a visit to an exhibition organized by the Academy of Fine Arts, open at Magazzino del Sale 3 until March 16th.

Interior of the building with Innocenti tube structures

The new layout encloses San Lorenzo internally with a structure of two hemicycles of Innocenti tubes designed by Antonello Pocetti and Antonino Viola and illuminated by Tommaso Zappon: a naked framework that is vaguely inspired by the wooden choirs and ephemeral architectures erected in ancient times in churches to host voices and instrumentalists at different heights.

The Orchestra of Padua and Veneto, the choir of Friuli Venezia Giulia, soloists Roberto Fabbriciani on flute, Carlo Lazari on viola, Michele Marco Rossi on cello, Roberta Gottardi on clarinet, Giancarlo Schiaffini (tuba/ trombone), Emiliano Amadori on double bass, and sopranos Livia Rado and Rosaria Angotti, contraltos Chiara Osella and Katarzyna Otczyk, tenor Marco Rencinai, with the reciting voices by Sofia Pozdniakova and Jacopo Giacomoni.

The conductor was Marco Angius (who offered a Prometheus at the Farnese theater in Parma with Vidolin in 2017 and who is a specialist in Nono, having directed almost all of the Venetian composer’s works) and, as second director, Filippo Perocco. The live electronics were entrusted to the computational phonology center of the University of Padua and the direction of the sound to Alvise Vidolin, who also participated in the creation of Prometeo in 1984. Two of the important soloists present in the current edition, Fabbriciani and Schiaffini, also contributed to that original production. Claudio Abbado conducted the 1984 Prometeo, the tenth anniversary of whose death is marked this year, and the second director – since the arrangement of the orchestras requires two “conductors” – was Roberto Cecconi.

In the foreground, moving signs-images for Prometheus, studies by Emilio Vedova, who designed the lights for the 1984 premiere
In the center of the photo Nuria Schoenberg Nono and her daughters Silvia and Serena Nono

Nuria Schoenberg was present at the premiere of the 2024 Prometheus, Luigi Nono’s widow and president of the Nono Archive, an archive that has signed an agreement with the Biennale to transfer its materials to the International Center on research for contemporary arts that the Biennale itself is creating at the Arsenale with Nuria Schoenberg, daughters Silvia and Serena Nono and Massimo Cacciari.

Roberto Cicutto, president of the Biennale, during a recent presentation of the cultural operation underlined how the Prometeo staged forty years ago, which involved extraordinary talents, was not just a musical event but represented a milestone in the history of music. The current revival, Cicutto had said, will not be the same Prometeo as it was then, but rather a staging that is as close as possible and philologically faithful to the score.

It is difficult to condense the meaning of Prometheus, but Marco Angius has provided an illuminating outline in a brief introduction.

Prometheus is a musical archipelago whose sound sources are spatially organized: instead of witnessing musical phenomena, the audience is immersed in them, surrounded by voices and instruments in a dispersed arrangement.

The marked theatrical nature of the texts, recomposed by Massimo Cacciari, is stylized – these are Angius’ words again – in a voluntary renunciation of any visual form. Prometeo appears rather like an immense garland of concerted madrigals.

In his notes Angius also wrote about a sonic galaxy that is perpetually adrift around a center constituted by the public itself.

This is precisely the enveloping sensation that the ear and the whole body receive when sitting in San Lorenzo, whose walls collect the breath of Time and reflect an echo of the boiling of the elements before they become matter, an echo that dissolves in a creation in reverse, becoming thought. It is a reverberation, that of stone and brick, which transforms into a silent pulsation from a starry sky, which is stabbing – at times – when it sends back metallic screams from the arches which penetrate the flesh and leave cracks in the earth’s crust while recounting a universal pain. To soothe it, from time to time, waves of voices that, like a balmy rain, envelop the audience: a rain that heals the wounds opened by the sound for moments, but does not erase them, and seems to fall from the closed mouths of the stucco cherubs that still decorate the walls, from those with the angels and saints on the top of the central altar which divides the church in two.

Listening to Prometeo, fragments of Luigi Nono’s diary come to mind. They talk about synagogue ritual, about Greek theaters and their acoustics, about the Marciana Chapel in Venice, about choirs and organs and their arrangement in churches always at half height, never on the floor. Nono’s annotations mention marble, stone, tapestries, mosaics, wood. They evoke the Tibetan monasteries and the Orthodox one in Zagorsk. Places so far from standardization, from uniform, rectangular or circular concert halls.

“Sounds, various materials, and architectural spaces invent the ars combinatoria”. “Not just memories, not just distant echoes” and, again, “Today continuous innovation is possible”. Knowing how to listen. Even silence. Listening to music

Not in a listening opportunity. But with different probabilities of transformation in real time

Our life, intimate, internal, external, environmental – vibrates, pulsates, listens in different ways to the varying acoustics: continuous-discontinuous-perceptible-inaudible-the depth of distances, of echoes, of memories, of natures, fragments, instants, underground, sidereal, random, aperiodic, endless.

Technology today can bring amazed wonder to our ears, to our intelligence, to our feelings, to our knowledge, and why not? To the possible ‘not understanding’, however,

Nono wrote in diary fragments. Technology, which is something different from technique and, in fact, the Venetian composer had the opportunity to underline that

technical reproducibility today means reduction, even though nothing would prevent us from using the incredible technical resources available to listen to what is possible.

Reproduction of a canvas by Gabriel Bella depicting the vestment of a nun in the church of San Lorenzo (1794), exhibited in the exhibition at Magazzino del Sale 3
The entire Magazzino del Sale which hosts the exhibition on Prometheus organized by the Academy of Fine Arts 3.

Prometheus in San Lorenzo, therefore.

Where it was, but not “as it was”, also according to those who heard Prometheus forty years ago. At the end of the first performance on January 26th, when the applause concluded, it was all a mix of greetings and comments among the audience. In the memories of those who had been at the performance in San Lorenzo in 1984, perceptive and emotional differences evidently emerged.

When I asked Venetian composer Claudio Ambrosini, Golden Lion of the Biennale in 2007, he recalled, with a twinkle in his eyes, the silences and the different temporal vastness of the work at that time, which could last four hours in rehearsals, then became in the second version, the definitive one in 1985, just under two and a half hours.

Beyond and apart from its duration, Prometheus remains a monumental, titanic composition. Having the chance to hear it explained to me the international success of this work, which has a universal and timeless dimension because it leads us to the abysses and peaks of human impulses, but also has an impressive prophetic vision of our growing and unhealthy relationship with technologies in general, and those of sound and image reproduction in particular, which impoverishes and amputates our perceptive faculties.

A document from Nicola Cisternino’s archives helps us to understand the Prometheus of then and today: an enlightening review by the musicologist and music critic Massimo Mila, who defined Prometheus as “A sacred action of no religion”.

“The Anti-Prometheus by Nono and Cacciari” was the headline in La Stampa in 1984, and Mila, referring to the texts of the booklet written by the Venetian philosopher, mentioned the “mystical temptation that strips the myth of Prometheus from instances of rebellious and libertarian titanism”. Mila always spoke of a biblical tone, of a sense of Genesis gathered from Nono’s music which forms an archipelago of sound islands.

Mila’s article helps to look at the backlight and see the filigree on which the composition is woven. There is a great complexity behind the creative process of Prometheus which, not surprisingly, was developed over a long period between 1981 and 1985. It is a philosophical, conceptual, compositional and executive complexity that intertwines thought, knowledge and skills linked together by the thin but tenacious thread of live electronics – forty years ago embodied by instruments that are almost archaeological today – but which remains the glue of a new performance system.

Prometheus, tragedy of listening is the complete title of the composition, and looking at the semantics of the two words, the word ‘tragedy’ is the other side of the word ‘feast’, at the religious rites of ancient Greece, reuniting these lemmas with ‘dran’, the root of drama; drama which means to do, to act but which, as Cacciari explains in one of his texts “is a single and irrevocable decision, total responsibility in front of one’s daimon”.

Prometheus is a dran of listening – these are again Cacciari’s words – what meets and conflicts, what ‘happens’, what ‘becomes’ is only sound. Every ‘movement’ retreats into the invisibility of sound”.

We need to overcome the scholastic image of the chained Prometheus who stole fire from the gods to give it to men. Prometheus has many dimensions. He is also the one who is entrusted with the task of creating man by giving him shape in a mixture of earth. Prometheus’ fire represents the origin of knowledge, and this “gift” is also at the root of the breakdown of a previous balance. “Prometheus therefore neither frees nor consoles – Cacciari writes – his fire sheds light on what we have to suffer outside of Dike”. Dike, justice as divinity, the Latin Iustitia.

Prometheus suffering “things outside of Dike”. Prometheus, so similar to a fallen angel.

While listening, my eyes perceived colors that they did not see but which recomposed, beat after beat, island after island, the luminous sequence of the Creation narrated by the mosaics of the small dome in the narthex in the basilica of San Marco. A depiction inspired by a famous codex – the Cotton codex – probably written in the 5th century and containing a very rich repertoire of miniatures illustrating Genesis.

Prometheus sent me back to the figure of the Creator. A Creator without a white beard, who separates light from darkness, waters from earth and with the latter gives form to Adam.

A Creator who places man before the tree of knowledge. A Creator who seems like a young Christ. As beautiful as an angel.

The photographs are by Sandra Gastaldo.

The cover image is taken from Marco Angius’s X account @Agnusmangius

Translation by Paul Rosenberg

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“Prometheus”, Now and Then ultima modifica: 2024-01-29T18:50:09+01:00 da SANDRA GASTALDO
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