Prom 53: Shostakovich — Orango

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

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

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, Natalia 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
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 mÈlange. 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

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 BartÛk’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.

Claire Seymour

Click here for a broadcast of this performance.


BartÛk — The Miraculous Mandarin; Mozart — Piano
Concerto No.24 in C minor K.491; Shostakovich — Orango, Prologue
(orch. G. McBurney)


David Fray — piano

Cast (Orango):

French Visitors to Moscow
Armand Fleury (a French embryologist) — Alexander Shagun, tenor; RenÈe
(his daughter) — Natalia Yakimova, mezzo-soprano; Foreigner 1 — Vladimir
Babokin, tenor; Foreigner 2 — Oleg Losev, tenor; Paul M‚che (a French
reporter) — Alexander Trofimov, tenor; Susanna (Orango’s Parisian socialite
wife) — Natalia Pavlova, soprano.

Soviet Citizens
Bass (Commissar) — Yuri Yevchuk, bass; Guard — Lev Elgardt, bass;
Master of Ceremonies — Denis Beganski, bass-baritone; Nastya Terpsikhorova (a
dancer) — Rosie Kay, dancer; Zoologist — Dmitry Kolyeushko, tenor; Orango
— Ivan Novoselov, baritone.

Esa-Pekka Salonen — conductor. Irina Brown — stage director.
Louise Price — stage/video designer. Rosie Kay — movement director. Sades
Robinson — costume supervisor. Steph Blythman — alterations/dresser. Bernie
Davis — lighting design. Philharmonia Orchestra. Philharmonia Voices (lower

Royal Albert Hall, London. Monday 24 August 2015.

Click here for additional information.

image_description=Esa-Pekka Salonen / © Katja T‰hj‰
product_title=Prom 53: Shostakovich — Orango
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Esa-Pekka Salonen / © Katja T‰hj‰