Friday, 23 March 2018

Glière The Red Poppy and Soviet non-realism

The Harbour Scene in Glière's The Red Poppy
As part of the Voices of Revolution series at the South Bank, Vladimir Ashkenazy conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra in Mosolov's The Iron Foundry,  Prokofiev's Piano Concerto no 3 (Behzod Abduraimov), Glière's Concerto for coloratura soprano and orchestra and the Suite from Glière's The Red Poppy. The Iron Foundry and The Red Poppy were written  around 1927, when the Revolution was safely established, and culture in the Soviet Union was briefly progressive, even avant garde. It represented the hope that a new world order could be achieved through progress and Russian leadership. Later, Stalinism, and "the will of the people" would dictate the conservatism that comes with mass populist values.  The Iron Foundry marks one aspect of Futurism: faith in industrial processes.  It's a blast ! It also connects to other artistic works of the period, not only in Russia, from Fritz Lang's Metropolis (read more here) to Machinist Hopkins (more here). I've written about The Iron Foundry and Soviet Futurism before, (see labels like Futurism and Eisenstein) so I decided to watch the full ballet version of The Red Poppy in a full-colour production from Bratislava in 1954. 

Glière's The Red Poppy is set in China. Nothing unusual about that given western taste for exotic locales.  Significantly, Turandot premiered in 1927, around the same time as The Red Poppy. Since a huge part of Asia was in fact part of the Russian Empire, it was perfectly natural for Russian composers and artists to incorporate "eastern" themes. Hence Borodin's Prince Igor, and much else.   Yet there's more to The Red Poppy.  It's poltical, and connects to a wider context of Soviet expansionism.  The film, Storm over Asia (Vsevolod Pudokin, 1928) depicts a Mongolian herdsman mistreated by the British (generic capitalist) who eventually drives them from his land.  The timing of The Red Poppy is worth noting.  It's no accident either that the title is "red" poppy, since the "white" poppy produces the opium which caused the Opium Wars and the Unequal Treaties.   China was in the throes of modernizing after thousands of years of feudalism, and the young Republic forced to call on help from outside. The Chinese couldn't really rely on western powers who had an interest in keeping China subservient, so they called in the Soviets.  The Chinese Communist Party was minute, founded only in 1921, so it didn't seem a threat. But by 1924, Comintern had such influence that it could organize massive strikes in the main Treaty Ports, threatening the control of western powers.  The leader of the Comintern in China was codenamed Borodin, a name familiar to many Chinese since his music was well known in China.  Hanns Eisler's elder brother was also involved, lower down the scale. The Chinese soon got rid of the Comintern, but eventually the CCP took hold. 

Glière's The Red Poppy depicts the harbour in a Treaty Port (as sen in the photo above, taken from the original production). Coolies, working on a pittance, are unloading goods for foreigners and the rich. In the Bratislava production the cargo is marked "From the USA" and contains guns.  The workers are mistreated, not only by western capitalism but by Chinese collaborators, depicted - alas - like Fu Man Chu stereotypes. Glière incorporates many different musical styles to emphasize the contrast between cultures - foxtrots and jazz for the capitalists,  bizarre pastiche Chinoiserie for the Chinese, and The Internationale for the Soviets and "good" Chines partisans.   The original, being a ballet, contains numerous set pieces for dance, including passages where notes flutter breathlessly, so the dancers do a lot of en pointe, their feet arched as if they had bound feet (another western stereotype of Chinese culture).  In ballet, dance tells the story, so plots don't need much depth.  A Chinese nightclub dancer called Tai-Choa notices how nice the Soviet sailors are (they have a famous dance number).  There are "Malay" dancers too, who have no function but to add another element of exotic soft porn  - "Malays" no real Malay would recognize.  In a protracted dream sequence, induced by smoking dope (as stereotype Chinese were expected to do), Tai-Choa finds herself in a temple with a giant Buddha. Demons dressed like generals in Beijing opera threaten her, but she's saved by good guy warriors in white (!) commanded by a Chinese partisan. The Chinese villian tries to get Tai-Choa to poison the Soviet Captain (whom she loves)  but she won't do it. The temple/courtyard is raided and the Captain and his men enter.  The Chinese villain raises his gun and shoots, but Taï-Choa sees what's happening and takes the shot, and dies.
Russian music was ubiquitous in China long before the Communists came to power. After 1917, hundreds of thousands of "White" Russians flooded into China to escape, swelling the number of western musicians in China,  forming dance bands and orchestras, even supporting Russian language opera houses. Glière's earlier music would have been quite well known, though The Red Poppy with its overtly political character would probably have been banned before 1949.  After the Sino-Soviet split in 1957, it would have been banned again.  But by then, decades of militant entertainment of all persuasions had become part of the Chinese scene, giving rise to a distinctly Chinese form of political ballet, which blends agit prop with the stylization of Chinese opera.

1 comment:

Keith Parry said...

A fascinating and informative article, as all your articles are. I'm now about to sit down and watch 'The Red Poppy' myself.