It’s hard to imagine a grimmer subject for an opera than the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine that killed an estimated seven million people. Add in a première delayed nearly 80 years, a semitonal score and avant-garde staging, and you’ve got a disturbing and baffling night at the National Theater.

The opera is Nová Země (The New Land), composed in 1936 by Czech microtonal advocate Alois Hába. The subject matter is drawn from an eponymous story by the Russian journalist Fyodor Gladko, which describes his visit to an agricultural commune in Ukraine in 1928. It was the early days of Stalin’s collectivization program, which confiscated all private farms and reorganized them into collectives with impossible production quotas. When Ukraine failed to meet its quotas, a series of brutal repressive measures were imposed that resulted in millions of people starving to death.

© Hana Smejkalová
© Hana Smejkalová

Stalin was able to hide much of this from the West, perpetuating the myth of Russia as a socialist experiment destined for glory. Hába believed in the myth, despite the fact that the realities of communism were starting to leak into Eastern and Central Europe. Some of these made their way into Nová Země,which opens with references to madness and cannibalism. Ultimately, however, the composer felt the Russian system could overcome such temporary, if dire, problems.

Hába had one opera under his belt and was at work on a second when he went to an international composers’ conference in Moscow in 1933 and returned inspired to write an opera using “new sonic phraseology” that would capture Russia’s new socialist spirit. He finished Nová Země in June 1936, and the National Theater promised a production in November. But the première kept getting postponed, and despite intense lobbying efforts by Hába, was finally canceled the following spring by the Ministry of Education, which declared the piece too politically charged to risk production.

The politics of the decision are impossibly tangled at this remove. But Music Director and Conductor Petr Kofroň, who was at the podium when the opera finally had its première on Friday night, cut through them neatly in an introductory remark. “Hába was always a little off,” he said. “With his quartertones, his constructivism, his lack of themes and his relationship to socialism – this was suspicious to all regimes. Finally, celebrating the ʻnew manʼ in the Soviet Union with an opening scene of Soviet famine and cannibalism is really inconsistent with the teachings of Lenin, Stalin and Klement Gottwald.”

“Lack of themes” is a good way to describe the music. Aside from a quote from “The Internationale” in the overture and a Russian propaganda song in the third act, there is barely a hint of melody in the entire 90 minutes. Heavy on brass and percussion, the score is a series of dissonant, portentous blasts and jabs, driving, strident, always on the verge of cataclysm. The instrumentation is sharp, with high-pitched whistles in the woodwinds setting nerves on edge, and atonal atmospherics from the strings. The music and vocal lines almost never match, adding to a sense of unease and distress.

The production opened with a gripping contemporary reference – a downed plane, burning and smoking in a background projection with bodies and suitcases littering the stage. Soon some of the bodies stirred and began going through the suitcases – survivors, apparently, who then morphed into villagers of the 1930s, swept up in hunger and horror. They acted in silent misery on center stage while to the left and right, singers in formal wear stood at music stands, performing the vocals. Behind them the choir, also in formal wear, sat on a tall platform, overlooking the tragedy like a cold, distant politburo.

After the opening, the staging rapidly disintegrated until it was all but indecipherable. A trio of military overseers forced the villagers into abusive labor and then tormented them, withholding a single ladle of soup or loaf of bread. Amid that a jester appeared, dancing in perverted glee while a cascade of consumer goods swirled in a rear projection. After a gruesome depiction of cannibalism, the overseers reappeared in animal costumes and appeared to devour their captives – until the captives removed the heads of their costumes and had sex with them.

© Hana Smejkalová
© Hana Smejkalová

The vocals started in a similar vein, with horrific depictions of starvation (“She snuggles up to the dead head, sucks, bites.”), then moved on to discussions of political theory and women’s proper roles in the commune. There was a thread of a storyline – about a woman who defies the needs of the collective and is finally expelled from the village – but it was impossible to discern. A close reading of the program was required to understand that the collective was being portrayed as the solution to the famine, and make sense of the ending, with the singers and chorus happily chanting, “The tractor for the field, music for women, kisses for maids, fists against rogues!” Meanwhile, projections of Russian propaganda posters and the villagers finally dying in a heap offered a realistic visual counterpoint.

Even with different staging, it’s unclear how all this would have made a persuasive case for communism. It’s tempting to think that politics were just an excuse for rejecting bad art. But the piece had its champions, with an avant-garde opera group in London staging part of the third act in 1937, and Rafael Kubelík conducting the Czech Philharmonic in a concert performance of the overture in Prague in 1945. Petr Kofroň, who got the biggest hand of the evening on Friday, acknowledged the difficulty of the music when, instead of taking a bow, he walked to the front of the stage, knelt down, and paid mock homage to his musicians.

For all its problems, the production had impact. The horrors of the Stalin era seemed uncomfortably close, and the surrealism of the villagers’ suffering gave it a timeless quality. Nová Země probably got all the attention it deserves with this one-off performance, but as the opening plane crash reminded, troubles in Ukraine are far from over.