Prom 53: Shostakovich — Orango
One might have been forgiven for thinking that both biology and chronology had gone askew at the Royal Albert Hall yesterday evening.
Flags were fluttering feverishly in the Arena and Gallery; the orchestra sported festive red sashes and the conductor had swapped his tuxedo for a lurid orange ti-shirt print-stamped with a hammer-and-sickle and an outsize portrait of Stalin; jazz mingled with brassy fanfares — and I was sure at one point that I heard a snatch of ‘Rule, Britannia!’. Had the ‘Last Night’ come early? No, we were being invited to embrace the bizarre and grotesque world of Dmitri Shostakovich’s unfinished (1932) opera, Orango.
Having just read Joanna Burke’s wide-ranging and thought-provoking investigation into What It Means to Be Human (Virago, 2011) — following Bourke’s arguments down the scientific, ethical and political byways of speciesism, xenografts and cross-transplantation — it seemed fitting to find myself watching the Prologue of an opera by Shostakovich in which the protagonist is a half-man/half-ape hybrid — the result of a grotesque medical experiment — who now resides in a Moscow circus and who is brought before the jeering crowds so that they can marvel at his dexterity with knife and fork, the civilised manner in which he blows his nose and yawns, and his musical prowess at the piano keyboard.
Orango was commissioned by the Bolshoi Theatre in 1932 to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the October Revolution, and the creators were given a broad theme to motivate them: ‘growth during revolution and socialist construction’. But, rather than producing a straightforward warning against the dangers of Western capitalism, Shostakovich and his collaborators devised a biting satire — recalling Mikhail Bulgakov’s allegorical novel Heart of a Dog — on the Communist Revolution’s attempt to radically transform mankind, and on the utopian science of the 1920s. One of the sources of inspiration for Shostakovich and his librettists, Aleksey Tolstoy (the ‘Red Count’) and Alexander Starchakov (who was arrested and executed by Stalin in 1937), was probably the work of the Russian biologist, Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov who attempted the hybridization of humans and other primates, chiefly chimpanzees. Shostakovich is reported to have visited Ivanov’s primate research station in Sukhumi while holidaying near the Black Sea.
Originally planned as a three-act opera, only the Prologue survives (though who knows what may subsequently turn up in the recouped refuse …). The manuscript was found by Russian musicologist Olga Digonskaya — who had been working with Irina Shostakovich, the composer’s third wife and widow, on Shostakovich’s catalogue — in the Glinka State Central Museum of Musical Culture, Moscow in December 2004. Digonskaya discovered a cardboard file containing some hundreds of pages of musical sketches and scores in Shostakovich’s hand. The story goes that a composer friend bribed Shostakovich’s housemaid to salvage the contents of his waste bin, thereby saving potential compositional gems from the garbage, and that some of this ‘rescued rubbish’ made its way into the Glinka Museum: among the ‘detritus’ were 13 pages of Orango — about 35 minutes of music. A piano score was published in 2010, with a scholarly introduction by Digonskaya, and this was later orchestrated by Gerard McBurney.
From these beginnings Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen has consistently championed Orango, giving the premiere of the Prologue in Los Angeles in December 2011 (with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and staged by Peter Sellars; a live recording was released by Deutsche Grammophon in 2012), bringing it to Europe in May 2013 (with the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Festival Hall London), and taking the opera back home to Russia in April 2014, where he conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Yurlov Russian State Academic Choir in a concert at Moscow’s Conservatory, as part of the International Rostropovich Festival.
In the Prologue, the Master of Ceremonies recounts Orango’s tale before the crowds at the Palace of Soviets, Stalin’s monumental but ultimately unrealized skyscraper — just one of the busy projections beneath and around the RAH organ balcony (stage/video design, Louis Price) which accompanied the performance. The MC relates how, after serving heroically in World War I and finding riches as an anti-communist journalist and newspaper mogul, Orango went bankrupt in an international financial meltdown and, as his behaviour was becoming increasingly simian and brutal, has been sold to the Soviet Circus. Hearing this news, and dissatisfied with the entertainment offered by a famous Russian ballerina, the impatient and increasingly bacchanalian crowds demand that Orango be brought before them. The man-primate is duly paraded but he becomes agitated and aggressive when he espies a young woman with red hair, Suzanna (who was to have been revealed later in the opera as his ex-wife). Another ballet display sends Orango wild with exasperation — ‘I’m suffocating, suffocating under this animal skin’ (here, Orango and the ballerina had a face-off over an outsized red Kalashnikov) — and the show is stopped, as the embryologist, his daughter and a foreign journalist all make claims to have a connection with Orango. The Prologue concludes with the crowd’s hysterical chant, ‘Laugh! Laugh!’, as the ape-man struggles for breath.
The Philharmonia Voices enthusiastically launched proceedings with a choral anthem celebrating the ‘freedoms’ of the new Soviet ages, with the miseries of pre-Revolution misery, their voices gusty, their copies of Pravda thrust heartily aloft. Later they would waft sunflowers and punch the air with similar panache.
As the Master of Ceremonies charged with entertaining the crowd of bored Foreigners — alien capitalists from the West — bass Denis Beganski was nattily dressed in blue silk but slightly woolly of voice, although his patter song eulogizing the miracles of the new Soviet economy went with a swing. Faced with the Foreigners’ demands for ‘something more interesting’, the MC summoned ‘the USSR’s most famous ballerina’, Nastya Terpsikhorova (Rosie Kay) whose ‘Dance of Peace’ was tidily executed. Dressed in a furry costume that looked decidedly itchy, tenor Ivan Novoselev effectively conveyed Orango’s unpredictability and the pathos of his situation. Dmitro Kolyeushko acted well as the Zoologist, more interested in his bananas than in the beast with whose care he is entrusted. As Suzanna, Natalya Pavlova was vocally strong and dramatically engaging. The ‘Foreign Visitors to Moscow’ looked like a strange troupe of grotesques but made consistently sure, if fairly minor, individual contributions.
Salonen and the Philharmonia had great fun with this outrageous and uproarious score. There was much impressive playing from the brass, percussion, bassoons and flutes in particular. Characteristically, there’s a lot of self-quotation — with music from The Bolt, Hypothetically Murdered and Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District among the many Shostakovich works making an appearance. It’s also an eclectic mix of idioms: a potpourri of can-cans, cabaret and children’s nursery songs — a veritable Orango-Tango mélange. But, we were never permitted to forget that Shostakovich’s satire is serious stuff: the musical mix may be wild, but there’s a grim blackness too. If the musicians’ approach was fearless, then we were reminded by this focused, intense performance that at this stage in his career Shostakovich was similarly daring; in music, as in life.
The 1932 commission was not delivered to deadline, and the opera was apparently abandoned: perhaps Shostakovich was distracted by his concurrent work on the scores of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk and the Fourth Symphony, or perhaps the creators recognised that their sharp lampooning of Social Realist ideology and spectacle would not go down very well with Stalin’s cronies in the Kremlin. Acts 1 to 3 would have told, in flashback, the full story of Orango’s life from his creation to his arrival in the USSR; all we have is this zany preface — which in fact suggests that considerable work would have been needed to tighten up the dramatic structure. These ‘opening’ 40 minutes are rather aimless: Orango’s story was to have been told in flashback in the following three acts, but on the evidence of the Prologue the overall result might well have been chaotic rather than coherent. The Prologue is certainly ‘all action’; and, in this staging the performers used the whole space of the auditorium, entering by various stairways and parading the aisles. But while the score repeatedly tickles — and electrifies — the ear, the hypermania serves little purpose and the cast have nothing much to actually ‘do’, resulting on this occasion in several long ‘freeze-frames’ as the soloists stood stock still during long orchestral episodes.
But, the orchestral fireworks and madcap energy of Orango enlivened a Prom whose first half never quite came alight. Salonen certainly didn’t hold back in Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin, a one-act ‘pantomime’ which presents a lurid tale of prostitution, embezzlement and murder. Trombone glissandi, pounding timpani, rhapsodic clarinet curls and scales, and shining horn outbursts all contributed to a beguilingly vibrant canvas. But, while there was much impressive instrumental playing, the rhythms — for example in the fugal section over a bass ostinato, as the Mandarin chases the young dancer — didn’t quite feel sufficiently ‘tight’. And, if the waltzes needed more seductive sheen, the violent episodes needed a more incisive edge.
I found David Fray’s performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.24 in C minor distinctly underwhelming. Every phrase was careful, thoughtful and beautiful; but Fray — seated on a standard RAH chair, rather than a piano stool, and his back bent alarmingly, so as to make one fear for the curvature of his spine — seemed to be playing to himself, rather than to Hall. The orchestral accompaniment was stodgy at times, lacked bite and vigour, and felt bass-heavy — something that was certainly not true of the Shostakovich after the interval, where the violins had bite and sparkle in equal measure. Perhaps this was a ‘dark’ prelude to Shostakovich’s sardonic bleakness? But, if so, it was brusquely swept aside by the bitter energy of Orango’s disturbing truths.