For Prom 53, Esa-Pekka Salonen brought two works with which he's been closely associated : Bartók The Miraculous Mandarin and Shostakovich's "lost" opera Orango
Since Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra have given many fine performances of The Miraculous Mandarin, (Op 19, Sz 73, 1924) it was a given that this Proms outing would be good, but it exceeded expectations. Enlivened and emboldened by the manic craziness of the Orango that was to come, Salonen conducted with a wild freedom that lifted the inventiveness of Bartók to levels that felt almost dangerous. The Miraculous Mandarin is an audacious work, which horrified its first audiences, and was promptly suppressed, by Konrad Adenauer, then mayor of Cologne, no less. So the impassioned flair with which Salonen and the Philharmonia created this performance, bristling with menace and sexual violence, truly an "Infernal Dance". Sleazy trombones and clarinets, frantic, manic brass and percussion, low brass and winds exhaling strange sighs, suggesting a connection between orgasm and death?
To bridge the gap between Bartók and Shostakovich, Mozart Piano Concerto no 24 in C minor K491, with David Fray as soloist. Mystery again, with a hint of something sensual, given the dark, rich orchestration, with pairs of clarinets, oboes, bassoons, horns and trumpets, in this context vaguely reminding me of the "stalking" clarinet duet - or duel - in the Miraculous Mandarin. A bit of Mozartean poise, preparing us for the grotesque of Orango to come?
And so, at last, to the eagerly awaited Proms premiere of Shostakovich's Orango, which Salonen premiered in Los Angeles and also conducted at the Royal Festival Hall last year, and in Helsinki (in a slightly different production). The manuscript was discovered among the composer's papers in 2004. Only the Overture was completed, the rest of the opera existing only in piano score, now orchestrated in a performing version by Gerard McBurney. The piece was written to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Russian revolution, that grand experiment in social engineering. In the grand new era after the 1914-18 war, people placed their hopes in Science and Progress, however loopy the theories might be. Some believed, for example that injecting monkey glands would enhance human virility. Orango is a half-ape, half-human creature, not so much the missing link but a new hybrid. A metaphor for the Brave New World ? Shostakovich would also have been well aware of Mikhail Bulgakov's 1926 novel The Heart of a Dog, where scientists give a man the heart of a dog, but nature asserts itself, and the man reverts to dog. Please read my review HERE of the brilliant ENO A Dog's Heart, created by Complicité and Simon McBurney (Gerard's brother).
The Overture is patriotically upbeat, driving brass and mechanical rhythms suggesting triumphal march. "We will dress the land (of free labourers) in the fabric of the Sun." Soviet realism in all its glory. The bass (Alexander Shagun) sings of the wonders of the new era, with its multi-megawatt power stations and infants who can dance. "No bedbugs in Moscow!" The part is written as if the character were a ringmaster in a circus: Did Shostakovich know of Lulu, which Berg was still in the process of writing? A long semi-lyrical sequence follows, which would have been set for ballet. Shostakovich uses material from his ballet Bolt!, which I've written about HERE. It's rather worrying how dance fits authoritarian form: people moving in regimented unison, their individuality suppressed. From dance to military displays and marches. Watch Ratmansky's choreography for Bolt! if you can.
"This music has grated in my ears for 15 years" sang Shagun, then, leaning towards the conductor, asks him to "play something gentler, a lullaby". But no luck, the crowds want Orango, and bombastic noise. The trombones blew grotesque raspberries.. Orango (Ivan Novoselov) appears. "He can blow his nose, and play clapping games!" sang Shagun. But of course, he doesn't sing. Foreigners come to admire the spectacle - another wry comment on the foreigners who admired Stalin at this period. If the plot is sketchy, that's because the opera wasn't finished. We have to make allowances. the music is crude, but then, the subject is crude, and it's possible that Shostakovich might not have got much further. Orango is not, and can never be, much more than a fragment, but it's a tantalizing one. The plot, potentially, has more possibilities than Shostakovich's football ballet The Golden Age, though the music for The Golden Age is rather good, especially in the highly recommended recording conducted by José Serebrier. Orango isn't great art, but the world would be a gloomier place without it.