Inside Dmitri Shostakovich lurked a wicked satirist who had to be hidden until long after the composer was tormented and driven to despair by the Soviet bureaucracy. What is most remarkable, in retrospect, is the sense of humor and absurdity he managed to preserve, which still stings with sharp authority decades later.

Jan Kučera (Shostakovich) © Hana Smejkalová
Jan Kučera (Shostakovich)
© Hana Smejkalová

The stings had special resonance at the première of a Shostakovich double bill at the National Theater's New Stage in Prague, where communist oppression is still a fresh memory. The opener is a recent discovery: Orango, a fragment unearthed by a musicologist in the Glinka Museum in Moscow in 2004. It was to be the prologue of a three-act opera about a half-man, half-ape slated for production at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1932. For various reasons the project was scrapped, and the prologue ended up in Shostakovich’s wastebasket.

Fortunately, a friend bribed his maid to save his trash, and after Shostakovich’s death the Glinka Museum was given more than 300 pages of unfinished scores and sketches. Orango has been staged three times since its discovery, in Los Angeles, London and Moscow, all with musical preparation by Esa-Pekka Salonen. But those were reconstructions. The Prague premiere on Dec. 17 was the first time the piece has been performed in the original piano reduction.

The second work, Anti-Formalist Rayok, takes its title from a satirical 1870 piece by Mussorgsky, and its content from two gatherings of the Congress of Soviet Composers – the first and most notorious in 1948, the second in 1957 – at which decrees were handed down on the proper way to compose music. At the first, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian and others were denounced as anti-socialist formalists and their work banned. Shostakovich was particularly humiliated, forced out of the Moscow Conservatory, required to make a self-critical public “confession” and restricted to writing film scores.

Roman Janál (Bavič) and Eliška Gattringerová (Zuzana) © Hana Smejkalová
Roman Janál (Bavič) and Eliška Gattringerová (Zuzana)
© Hana Smejkalová

In quiet retaliation, he composed a brief opera portraying a mock gathering of Soviet apparatchiks giving instructions on writing politically correct music, seconded by a yea-saying chorus. The speakers are thinly veiled caricatures of Stalin and the henchmen who enforced his crackdown on the arts, issuing orders in pompous, vacuous speeches with sly musical undertones – Stalin’s speech, for example, is set to his favorite folk song, Suliko. The work was performed for a small circle of Shostakovich’s friends several times at his home, and received its first public airing in a performance led by Mstislav Rostropovich at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC in 1989.

Slovak director Sláva Daubnerová tied the pieces together with two clever devices. Before Orango started, a bizarre trio – three men in dark suits, seemingly spray-painted in white from the chest up – were shown to seats in the front row. They didn’t like the performance and left in disgust halfway through, which made sense when they turned out to be the three main speakers in Anti-Formalist Rayok. And she inserted Shostakovich himself as a character, conducting the music in the first piece, playing the piano in the second, and generally getting pushed around and intimidated the entire evening. The part was played by Czech pianist, conductor and composer Jan Kučera, who looked uncannily like his Russian counterpart.

Martina Hajdyla Lacová (Orango) and Eliška Gattringerová (Zuzana) © Hana Smejkalová
Martina Hajdyla Lacová (Orango) and Eliška Gattringerová (Zuzana)
© Hana Smejkalová

The piano was the sole instrument for both pieces, which at first seemed a rather thin proposition. But it turned out to be all that was needed for text-driven works, and the truest way of realizing Orango.

Both the music and the staging in Orango had a carnival atmosphere, with Czech baritone Roman Janál playing ringmaster to a well-heeled, decadent crowd that delighted in seeing people suffer. Ballerina Jade Clayton was reduced to crutches after being forced into a frenzied dance. The title character, portrayed with simian aplomb by gorilla-headed dancer Martina Hajdyla Lacová, was like a freak on display. Where all this would have gone is hard to say, especially with the rest of the opera planned to be a backstory. But the portrayal of the crowd was ugly, and when librettist Alexander Starchakov was deemed to be an enemy of Socialist Realism in art, he was arrested and executed. So Shostakovich may have literally dodged a bullet by consigning his nascent score to the trash bin.

Oleg Korotkov (Dvojkin) © Hana Smejkalová
Oleg Korotkov (Dvojkin)
© Hana Smejkalová

Anti-Formalist Rayok is a short but brilliant satire, loaded with musical puns and topical references that only a musicologist and student of the period could fully appreciate. But no degree was necessary to appreciate the comic delivery of singers Jevhen Šokalo, Pavel Švingr, Oleg Korolkov and Ivo Hrachovec. The generous laughter in the audience also suggested there were plenty of people who understood the Russian-language vocals (learning Russian was mandatory in Czechoslovakia during the communist regime), and recognized windbag speeches that sound important while being totally absurd.

A final takeaway from the evening: Sláva Daubnerová, 34, is a talent to watch. She showed a solid command of the material, had original ideas and struck just the right note of black humor. And the final transformation of the white-topped apparatchiks into plaster busts was brilliant. Shostakovich would have been pleased.

****1