What a stunning discovery a 30-minute prologue for a three-act opera in Shostakovich s intense, dreamlike, delirious and entertaining tragedy-satire genre, an amalgam of pure dramatic shock, sharp political critique, popular mass culture, wild character pieces, sexy ballet episodes, heartfelt social protest music and sheer operatic pandemonium.
In the early years, every anniversary of the October Revolution involved a series of public processions, performances and installations that were hotly debated products by artists who were frequently in the vanguard of the government they were celebrating. These pageants and displays were constantly controversial, often crude, but as frequently exhilarating as a way of translating the idealism of the revolution, whose promises were a long way from being fulfilled, into tangible and empowering street demonstrations that engaged the population as democratic participants in shaping their own future, and transcended the temporary setbacks of famine, international economic blockades, a desperately underpowered industrial sector and the chaos and violence of the agricultural collectivization of the peasantry. The 15th anniversary of the great Soviet Revolution in 1932, scaled back and truncated, was the last to be celebrated in this way. By 1933, the first great wave of the Stalin Terror was under way, and celebrations reverted to the endless corteges of weapons that we know from subsequent decades.
That Shostakovich s Orango was suddenly abandoned is a telling reminder of so much that was cut off and buried alive in this terrible year.
The high spirits and dazzle of Orango are a product of one of the most exciting moments in the history of art, the explosion of the Russian avant-garde in the 1920s. Meyerhold, Mayakovsky, Rodchenko and Eisenstein were leaders of a movement that radicalized the arts in service of a new society: justice, economic parity and re-imagined social priorities were only possible if you took the old order, turned it upside down, chopped it to pieces, and reassembled the parts into something new and wonderful. Because of the essential difficulty of the process, the work depended on Ã©lan, joyous, reckless indifference to psychological platitudes and received political wisdom. Shostakovich, still in his twenties, wrote the soundtrack to much of this anarchic foment and ferment. He was literally working on dozens of projects at once, writing more music with more catchy tunes than even Mozart in his twenties film scores, ballets, processionals, cantatas, marches for firemen, workers groups, peasants, theatricals all flowed from his scratchy pen with wit, economy, and surprising power.
Orango begins with an overture that reverses the tragic flow of human history followed by a chorus that traces mankind s rise from serfdom to the formations of the first workers unions and negotiations about hourly wages and humane working conditions. (The commitment of this music remains stirring and freshly relevant in the 21st century, as people have once again taken to the streets to protest economic injustice and lack of equal opportunity.) A sleazebag emcee (who has evolved into our own TV news anchor/entertainer/mouthpiece/tool) appears and tries to keep the ceremonies politically on message, noting upticks in agribusiness and promoting an incipient real estate boom. All governments are relieved when the stage is given over to a brain-dead but iron-willed classical ballerina representing official culture that keeps the old order firmly in place. But Orango then proposes a new genetic mutation, a blowout ballet of tutus, tulle, and army and navy generals with a breathtaking toxic-cloud shock-and-awe panorama of the latest weapons exploding in the night sky. (Shostakovich rescued the music for this number from his brilliant two-and-a-half-hour industrial ballet, Th