Al gran sole carico d'amore, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Revolution and revolt: the opera
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Hanover State Opera brought three offerings to the Edinburgh Festival: Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, which was a wretched travesty, a barnstorming Il trovatore, and finally Luigi Nono's classic Al gran sole carico d'amore. Seeing the third of these, you wondered why they bothered to bring the other two.

For this was a staggering achievement. Nono conceived the piece in collaboration with the great stage director, Yuri Lyubimov. This, in a sense, promotes every future director of the opera to the rank of Nono's collaborator. As the work has no coherent plot - it comprises a series of short scenes in which texts are declaimed, mostly taken from the literature of political revolution - some kind of mis-en-scène has to be invented for a performance.

This requires a very special kind of opera producer. Peter Konwitschny, who handled this production, is exactly that. He proved beyond doubt that this disconnected piece, with its predominance of the chorus, is an unconditionally visual and theatrical experience.

The two parts of Nono's azione scenica are respectively about the Paris Commune of 1871, and the failed Russian revolution of 1905. The text is in many languages and is taken from poets such as Pavese and Rimbaud (the title, "In full sunlight, heavy with love" comes from the latter), from Marx and Brecht, and from revolutionaries: Lenin, Castro, Che Guevara, the French heroine Louise Michel and Guevara's friend Tania Bunke.

Any work of art of stature must be ambiguous and many-sided, and this work succeeds because, for all its passionate political content, you are never sure whether the message is optimistic or hopeless, earnest or ironic. Konwitschny captured this tone exactly. He opened on a stage full of coffins from which the chorus at last emerged. Two children were terrified by the political violence that ensued. Naive workers were persuaded to put on Phrygian caps and fight for the revolution, but they were massacred and Paris went up in flames.

The Russian act centres on a novel by Maxim Gorky about the mother of a revolutionary shot in a factory uprising. Political leaflets are distributed (they are, in fact, copies of the programme for this performance, a peculiarly disturbing idea). At last, the mother is inconsolable; freedom was not worth the loss of a son. In both parts, the political masters are shown as ludicrous clowns, a gesture both crass and ironic.

The performance was astonishing. There seemed no shortage of sopranos with the very high range Nono demands, and the mix of orchestral mass, lyric song and electronic sound was consummate. The work is very much a collective effort (as its theme demands) but mention, in particular, must be made of Leandra Overmann, the theatrically gifted singer who was Gorky's Mother.

Although it is not an individualist or an expressive drama, the predominant tone of elegy, loss, and bitter pain was underlined powerfully by a magnificent chorus.

An opera about Communist idealism sounds like a non-starter. This performance proved its overwhelming power.