Shostakovich’s Rediscovered Opera ‘Orango’ and the Fourth Symphony in London

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Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photo by Clive Barda.

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photo by Clive Barda.

Royal Festival Hall, London: 16 May 2013

ShostakovichOrango (UK première) (orchestration by Gerard McBurney)
Shostakovich – Symphony No. 4

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen – conductor

Irina Brown – director
Kevin Treacy – lighting designer
Louis Price – set and video designer
Ryan McKinny – The Entertainer
Allan Clayton – Zoologist
Richard Angas – Orango
Elisabeth Meister – Susanna
Peter Hoare – Paul Mache
Ashley Riches – bass/voice from the crowd
Philharmonia Voices

By the skin of his teeth. As a bizarre offshoot of the workers’ paradise, Soviet ideology boasted of creating a New Man, with possible help from the apes — before DNA was discovered, crackpot experiments that involved interbreeding humans with lower primates were conceived. The only success was fictitious, a creature named Orango who began life as a French journalist before being injected with chimpanzee serum. He is the sullen, furry anti-hero of a satirical opera begun by Shostakovich in 1932, and although the weirdness of the libretto may have been a stumbling block, another was probably political: Orango spoofed the decadent West (the creature uses his intelligence to become a stock market manipulator but retains a King Kong-like appetite for blondes). Did Orango’s brutish manners shave a bit too close to Stalin? Or did he dangerously mock the promise of a New Man?
It was brilliant of Esa-Pekka Salonen to stage the 40-minute prologue to the opera, the only fragment that survives (as orchestrated from a piano score by Gerard McBurney), as a pendant to the mammoth, clangorous Fourth Symphony. It, too, was suppressed for going against the Stalinist grain. Written in 1935 and 1936, the score was doomed midway through by the notorious Pravda editorial accusing Shostakovich of writing “chaos instead of music.” In a stroke the free-wheeling modernist phase of Soviet music was stifled and the long twilit horrors of Shostakovich’s existence began. Orango is grotesque; the Fourth Symphony is overwrought. What they have in common is their evasion of clear, truthful feelings, the kind that living under totalitarianism makes unsafe.
Musically, Orango is mostly clownish fun. To scrape together a few rubles, the teenage Shostakovich had played the piano in freezing silent-movie houses, and there are Mack Sennett pratfalls and Tom Mix bravado in this music, with carefree dashes of Rossini and (why not?) Boris Godunov. Orango brings the circus to town — there’s no real satire — and to give depth to the carnival posters, stage director Irina Brown and video designer Louis Price devised a scampering cast of characters on stage and screen, who remain in violent motion. Most of the cast sang only a line or two as they gawked at the bound and drugged Orango, who has descended from Wall Street tycoon to sideshow freak, while a large chorus waved flags in the background and Salonen whipped up the musical merriment (perhaps as a way to distract us from the story’s overtones of sadism?).
The score is a pastiche of Shostakovich’s copious ballet and film music from the previous decade, with heavy borrowings from The Bolt — this suggests that his inspiration was half-hearted even before the opera was aborted. The only singer who has an extended part is the Entertainer, a kind of carny barker, performed with charismatic gusto by baritone Ryan McKinny in impressive rat-a-tat Russian. Orango himself, sung by bass Richard Angas, emitted impressive moans but few words. Salonen led the world premiere in Los Angeles in 2011 (it can be heard on a DG recording); our one-off performance was the European premiere. Given the huge forces required, I doubt anyone will rush to stage Orango again, but the whole manic affair showed what a genius is like when he gets to flail his arms in all directions. Which makes it all the more fascinating to hear the Fourth Symphony immediately afterward, when the same genius was being fitted for a straitjacket.
Despite the clouds looming over his new symphony, Shostakovich finished it with grim determination. The result, to my ears, is very strange, and it comes as a relief that Salonen agrees. In a YouTube video he explains that the score bears little relation to a symphony, being structured as a series of disconnected episodes that briefly appear and vanish. Salonen compares this to watching the world pass by under your window, which feels right, although one should add that the window is smothered by black drapes and the viewer is shuddering at what he sees. Under Stalin’s hammer, Shostakovich rarely makes us smile or weep — every feeling must be filtered through caution, misdirection, and dread. Yet among the great modernists, he was the most like Beethoven — possessed of a titanic imagination destined to change an entire musical culture — so even in suppression, the Fourth’s muffled cannons and underground bombs are still heavy weapons.
The symphony begins with the shriek of a steel foundry crushing its workers, only one of many gestures, ranging from hair-raising to sorrowing, that don’t reappear, or come back only as shadowy reminders. The division of the score into three movements disguises seven major tempo changes and many disparate events. Salonen speaks of how long it took him to come to terms with the Shostakovich Fourth, and given the number of lurching, aimless performances I’ve heard, his reading displayed tremendous discipline and, above all, deep thought. A prominent film critic once said (quite unfairly) that Meryl Streep acts from the neck up. I feel that way about Salonen, but when he applies his aloof analytics to a work of complex modernism, from Debussy to Ligeti, this weakness becomes a strength. The Shostakovich Fourth isn’t a frontal assault on harmony like the Prokofiev Third, which is so abrasive that it seems like an enfant terrible throwing stink bombs. Some of its episodes are lyrical or quietly mournful, and for the first time we hear the tick-tock of mechanical toys running down, which will reappear to end the composer’s Fifteenth Symphony, his farewell. For all the threats of oppression, Shostakovich escaped by the skin of his teeth decade after decade. Orango was a minor escape, the Fourth Symphony a major one. Posterity is left bewildered at how this genius could create a whole world while inhabiting a funeral parlor with the walls forever closing in.

About Huntley Dent

Huntley Dent is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Santa Fe.