Prom 53: Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen – Miraculous Mandarin and Orango – David Fray plays Mozart K491
Notable by its absence in 2014 (only its third non-Prom-year since it first appeared in this festival in 1962: 1965 and 1997 were the other two), the Philharmonia Orchestra roared back to Kensington Gore this Proms season with a cornucopia of orchestral excess, and a couple of aliens to boot, lead with characteristic flair by principal conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.
If Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin was overshadowed, that is more to do with the overwhelming assault on the senses (both visual and aural) of the Shostakovich. But that’s not to gainsay the quality of the Philharmonia in the Bartók, with Salonen conducting the complete, complete score (with the extra 30 bars reinstated in Peter Bartók’s edition from 1999), and the eerie vocalise of Philharmonia Voices adding mournful vowels to the Mandarin’s literal climax and final demise. Of course, it’s a much more intricate and lasting score than the Shostakovich: a glittering, disturbing ballet pitting criminality (in the form of the three tramps and the girl living on the ill-gotten gains of selling sex; with an old man and a gauche young man their first two victims) against carnality (the unstoppable desire of the alien Mandarin). And if I single out the whole of the viola section, the players biting into their strings to great effect, the snarling trombones and Mark van de Wiel and his clarinet cohorts, please take that as only a measure of the instrumental excellence throughout.
Last seen four years ago at the Proms, French pianist David Fray returned with another Mozart Concerto, swapping C major (K503) for C minor. Unique amongst the crop of Mozart Piano Concertos this Proms season in that its number equated exactly with the date. Fray and Salonen gave us a big-boned interpretation that suited both the Hall, and Fray’s choice of first-movement cadenza (having studied all those available, including by Reinecke and Brahms) by Paul Badura-Skoda proved a dramatic and rhythmic solo.
Fray, sitting on a red-backed Royal Albert Hall chair like his accompanists, looks rather awkward with hunched shoulders, lowered head and rather odd-angled arms, but it doesn’t affect his playing. Nor did the lack of intimacy in approach impede the finest of contributions of the woodwind section, and horns – especially in the slow movement – bringing a hint of Mozart’s Serenades and Divertimentos.
And so to the main event: celebrating the 15th-anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 1932. Well, that – for a short period – was what the 25-year-old Dmitri Shostakovich set out to do, to a scenario by sci-fi writers Alexey Tolstoy and Alexander Starchakov, for a projected satirical opera Orango, its ‘Prologue’ assembled, realised and orchestrated by Gerard McBurney.
McBurney has form in this arena: his rescue job on Shostakovich’s 1931 Music Hall entertainment (a sort of Soviet Dad’s Army episode), Hypothetically Murdered graced the Proms back in 1992. In 2004 a stash of sketches was uncovered, including thirteen pages of piano scoring for the opening to a projected opera about a man-ape called Orango. McBurney took up the challenge, aided by the fact that Shostakovich indicated major borrowings from other works – principally the Overture from his ballet The Bolt (which had been banned after one performance) – and the fact that some of these sketches became part of future works, notably Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which was already part- composed.
The result is a half-hour riotous entertainment to be set before the flagrantly over-the-top Palace of the Soviets (conceived but never built – on top of which was to be a 100-metre statue of Lenin, weighing 6,000 tons!): a satire to end all satires.
But satirising what, exactly? In a pre-Prom interview given by McBurney and Marina Frolova-Walker, overseen by Tom Service, it was suggested that the reason Shostakovich might have stopped work on Orango almost as soon as it started was because the initial satirical subjects were suddenly no longer current (particularly Soviet anger at the French, which stopped immediately a treaty was signed between the two nations). McBurney reiterated that one of the basic problems for anyone in public discourse at the time was that the authorities – and press – were fickle, so the official line could change at the drop of a hat.
But other influences are fascinating, too: the idea of cross-breeding man and ape was a stated intent of Soviet biologist Ilya Ivanov (a by-product was artificial insemination), who died in 1932 and, in 1931, the future co-director of King Kong (1933), Ernest Schoedsack made a quasi-documentary called Rango, about a humanoid orang-utan. Monkey business was definitely in the air.
Even though the full opera was dropped by its commissioner, the Bolshoi (although Shostakovich kept the money paid to him), it was to have told in flashback the story of a French product of human and ape intercourse: a man-ape who fought in the First World War, then became an anti-Soviet businessman, before being sold into a Moscow circus. But only the introductory torso in sketch form was left, and discarded. Here, at the October celebrations, the crowd plead to see Orango and, even though he escapes and molests a lady onlooker, is recaptured and the Master of Ceremonies ends by agreeing to tell the man-ape’s story.
McBurney completed his orchestration in 2009 and Orango was first presented, directed by Peter Sellars, by Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in December 2011, coupled with Shostakovich’s almost contemporary Symphony No.4 (McBurney finds similarities between them). Deutsche Grammophon released both works, and Salonen subsequently presented this combination with the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall with a different cast (including the late, lamented Richard Angas as Orango) and director Irina Brown, in May 2013.
Returning to the work, Irina Brown – now working with a young cast from the Mariinsky – was able to re-think her semi-staging to coruscating effect, aided and abetted by the Philharmonia members sporting black tops with red sashes, and the Voices wearing red T-shirts, emblazoned with either Stalin or Lenin. Salonen also wore a red shirt: an image of the Palace of the Soviets on the front, and hammer and sickle on the back. Hanging down over the organ console was a large red flag with the Palace on, and not only were the Philharmonia Voices armed with flags, but the prommers too, happy to join in the flag-waving even before the guards pointed their guns at them.
Now, to be honest, Orango is a weird piece; and Richard Whitehouse is surely correct (in his review of the Royal Festival Hall account) in suggesting that it might be better to have more outings of The Bolt or The Limpid Stream, works that Shostakovich saw through to fruition. On the other hand, Orango is riotous fun – and I can’t imagine it better done than here; the very nature of the standing masses (not a particularly full Arena, though, nor indeed anywhere near a sell-out), and the fact that the Mariinsky complement was able to enter down the Stalls stairs, and even make their way to the stage through the Arena.
Somehow Salonen and the Philharmonia seemed to have upped their volume even from the excesses of the Bartók, so the opening salvo of the Overture pinned you back in your seat. Sometimes that made the voices hard to hear. The large cast – save for Denis Beganski’s blue-smocked Master of Ceremonies and Dmitry Koleushko’s white-coated Zoologist – have only bit parts, although Ivan Novoselov’s Orango – orange arms and spiky Sellars hairstyle – made up for lack of vocal parts with stage antics. The one non-Mariinsky member of the cast was dancer Rosie Kay (who lopped off a microphone with a large replica of a gun). With such extravagant personnel demands opportunities will be rare indeed for Orango to be mounted often, and even then – one suspects – rarely as lavishly as here, and which created a real buzz. It was good to see the Philharmonia Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen back at the Proms.