Luigi Nono's Al Gran Sole Carico d'Amore
In tones of empathy and tenderness, Luigi Nono's sprawling oratorio Al Gran Sole Carico d'Amore celebrates the brave women, historical and imaginary, who have dedicated their lives to the cause of Communism or perished in the struggle. Any performance is an occasion, and the Salzburg premiere last night was no exception. But if Nono's attitude of nostalgia seemed quixotic in 1975, when the piece was new, it seems positively perverse today.
© Stephen Cummiskey
Among the saints Nono memorializes are Louise Michel (1830-1905), conspicuous on the Paris barricades and later sentenced to seven years of hard labor in New Caledonia; Tania Bunke (1937-67), a Cuban spy who died in violentcircumstances in Bolivia; Deola, a fictional prostitute of Turin; and the Mother immortalized by Gorky's play of that name, who distributes forbidden pamphlets. Nono's vocal parts, it should be added, are not matched to specific characters: we simply hear voices. Those who do have failed to commit all the biographies to memory will learn little of these women here. Though their declarations quiver with righteous passion, neither the causes nor the consequences of their nebulous acts ever snap into focus.
A colossal multimedia production by the British director Katie Mitchell does what it can to add substance. To this end, about half of the stage of the Felsenreitschule (easily double the width of the Metropolitan Opera) has been outfitted with a half-dozen tiny film sets where silent actors perform everyday activities before a live video crew. Someone lights a candle, another stirs thin soup and lays out slices of bread, another stares out a window. For excitement, there are episodes in which someone cuts and bandages an arm or dyes red squares of cloth. For a while, the camera focuses on a gun. Blink and you will miss nothing. Everything takes its sweet time.
The images are transmitted in real time to a giant screen, which is streaked and splotchy in the manner of galvanized steel. (At first, one may want to match the projected images to the real-time doings on the stage, but soon one just settles in to watch the movie.) The texture is grainy, and feels documentary, the palette reduced to gray on gray with red accents, occasionally lending transcendence to everyday objects and human dignity to an impassive face. At the National Theatre, in London, Mitchell showed the narrative potential of this technique—both its power and its finesse—in a dramatization of the Virginia Woolf novel The Waves. Here, working on a far vaster scale but with no real story to tell, she impresses mostly by her Napoleonic command of a small army.
Like the production that illustrates it, Nono's score is tremendous. The massed chorus in Salzburg occupies the half of the stage not reserved for the cluster of movie sets. The orchestra, reinforced beyond the maddest dreams of Wagner and Messiaen, is arrayed on risers that lifts rows of them into full view of the audience. Other combos colonize balconies and catwalks at either side. And there's a space-age complement of electronics. At times, the sonic blasts are deafening. More often, the sounds are wrought with exquisite care. Political convictions notwithstanding, Nono writes as a musician, not a rabble-rouser. He evokes labor anthems in fractured, muted fanfares, refraining from overt quotation. Most memorable of all is the writing for a quartet of sopranos hovering for pages and often without significant accompaniment several notches higher than the stratosphere explored in the trio of Der Rosenkavalier.
In Salzburg, the four soprano parts were parcelled out among five singers (Elin Rambo, Anna Prohaska, Tanja Andrijic, Sarah Tynan, and Virpi Räisänen), and while only the conductor may have known for sure who was who, they were individually crystalline and collectively stellar. The contralto Susan Bickley (in costume) both sang and acted a mother figure incorporating all Nono's mothers. By the standards of the production, it was a conventional performance, and perhaps for that reason, the most gripping.
Al Gran Sole Carico d'Amore scarcely seems employment for the Vienna Philharmonic or the Vienna State Opera Chorus, yet there they were, holding the two-hour course with unfaltering assurance under the sensitive, shaping hands of Ingo Metzmacher (no baton for him). By any standard, the collective achievement was stupendous. Yet I could not shake a curious sense of detachment. With all due respect, Louise Michel and the rest make a poor showing as saints of self-sacrifice and mother love. History having exposed the workers paradise of Marxist-Leninist theory as hell on earth, they look a lot more like patsies. Nono, a sentimentalist? Strange but true, evidently.