Music review: Premiere of Shostakovich’s long-lost ‘Orango’

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The fragment of Shostakovich’s 1932 satiric opera, “Orango,” given its world premiere by the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Friday night in Walt Disney Concert Hall, came like a bolt out of the blue.

But that is only in the sense that the work, which had been intended as a celebration of the 15th anniversary of the Soviet revolution, was so little known. Even the composer’s widow, Irina Shostakovich, who attended the Disney premiere, only learned of “Orango” when a musicologist discovered a sketch of its prologue in a Russian archive in 2004.


As conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, staged by Peter Sellars and orchestrated by Gerard McBurney, the premiere, in fact, was no bolt out of the blue at all. Shostakovich, who feverishly wrote a half-hour of music (probably in only a couple of days before breaking off the project), began it with the overture from another satiric theater work, his ballet “The Bolt.” After intermission, Salonen and the L.A. Phil gave a gripping performance of what is perhaps Shostakovich’s most unsettling major work, his Fourth Symphony, which was written shortly after “Orango,” to help explain where this massively convulsive symphony comes from.

As Sellars put it in a pre-concert talk, the howling rage and terror of the Fourth Symphony can be seen in this program as the completion of “Orango.” And to remind us that ‘Orango’ is certainly no bolt out of the blue in our own world, Sellars projected striking juxtapositions of images on a screen above the orchestra taken from current street protests, modern warfare and historical scenes of Soviet Russia.

Even without all that, the resonances of “Orango” with our time would be inescapable. The libretto by the experimental Russian science-fiction writer Alexei Tolstoy and his assistant Alexander Starchakov begins with unscrupulous science. A French biologist inseminates a female ape with his own sperm. Her offspring, Orango, becomes a virulently anti-Communist newspaper mogul, speculates irresponsibly in the stock market, takes a trophy wife, attempts rape and goes bankrupt during an international financial crisis.

We don’t know why Shostakovich broke off composition after writing only a piano score of the prologue, but clearly for a composer already on shaky ground with Stalin, this opera looked like trouble. Even the prologue is full of incident, with workers’ choruses and crazy dances, a silly zoologist and a pair of supercilious skeptical foreigners. Orango’s ultimate fate was to be sold by his wife to a circus, and he is paraded as a freak in a cage by The Entertainer. If this is a representation of anything, it is of a world out of control.

For his performing version, McBurney, a composer and writer who is artistic programming adviser for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and an authority on Russian music, said in the pre-concert talk that he immersed himself in Shostakovich’s theater music of the period. The orchestral style of “The Bolt” was his model. The score sounded liked Shostakovich in his wilder, if not perhaps most audacious, moment. Among the appropriate instruments were military whistle, car horn and banjo. It worked.

The cast of 10 was dominated by Ryan McKinney as the smooth The Entertainer, and Eugene Brancoveanu as the galumphing Orango. Sellars used much of Disney Hall, placing performers all over the place. When Orango attacked a woman (soprano Yulia Van Doren) seated in the front row of the audience, an actual Music Center guard restrained him.

The music for “Orango” is also all over the place, including a parody of a Russian nursery rhyme and a sentimental ballet, along with cries of mock anguish and of genuine anguish. The tone is madcap pessimism, with both celebration and mockery serving to cover up fear and uncertainty.

Salonen led a certain and compelling performance from the L.A. Phil and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Nothing could stop him, not even when a French journalist (the tenor Timur Bekbosunov), mounted the podium in an effort to restrain the conductor. Nothing in ‘Orango,’ nor in this first revelation of the opera, is sacred.

Salonen’s formidable performance in the Fourth Symphony lasted 65 minutes. The score is in three movements -- long and crazy outer ones, with a short, ingratiating intermezzo in the middle. This, too, was suppressed music. Shostakovich, fearing for his life, put it away after finishing it in 1936 and didn’t allow it to be performed for 25 years.

The first movement contains a diabolical fugue for sprinting strings that is madness itself. The finale is often demented, vacillating between banality, pomposity and stark tragedy, with hints of childlike sweetness further mucking up the picture. In program notes for the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Steinberg best described the messiness of this symphony as “just like life.”

Salonen has a logical mind, but he didn’t impose logic where there is none. He presented the Fourth as a series of compulsively listenable, bizarrely characterized incidents, each toppled, unrelentingly by the next.

“Occupy Everything,” was a slogan of one of the banners in an image Sellars used for “Orango.” And that’s exactly what the Fourth Symphony did. The L.A. Phil was this evening, on every level, brilliant. The program repeats Saturday and Sunday.


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-- Mark Swed