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World Premiere of Shostakovich’s Orango

Los Angeles
Walt Disney Concert Hall
12/02/2011 -  & December 3*, 4, 2011
Dmitri Shostakovich: Prologue to Orango (orchestration Gerard McBurney) – Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 43
Ryan McKinny (The Entertainer), Jordan Bisch (Voice from the Crowd/Bass), Michael Fabiano (Zoologist), Eugene Brancoveanu (Orango), Yulia Van Doren (Susanna),Timur Bekbosunov (Paul Mâche), Adriana Manfredi (Renée), Abdiel Gonzalez (Armand Fleury), Daniel Chaney (Foreigner 1), Todd Strange (Foreigner 2)
Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon (music director), Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)
Peter Sellars (Director), Ben Zamora (Lighting Designer)

E.-P. Salonen (Courtesy of LA Philharmonic)

Dmitri Shostakovich’s work on the opera Orango was virtually unknown until a piano/vocal manuscript of the Prologue was discovered by Dr. Olga Digonskaya in 2004. For reasons that are unclear, the prologue was all that was written by the composer and his librettists. The following three acts were never endeavored. After its discovery, British composer Gerard McBurney was commissioned to orchestrate the Prologue and the LA Phil presented the world premiere this past weekend with the composer’s widow, Irina Shostakovich, among those in an enthusiastic audience.

The opera’s story is part reality, part farce; part science fiction, part political satire. It is the fantastical tale of a half-human orangutan, Orango, whose genesis is frighteningly based on a true story. The Prologue takes place in front of the massive Palace of Soviets, where a patriotic and celebratory crowd awaits an exhibition of Orango. The creature appears, performs a few tricks, but then alarmingly approaches a woman who has caught his eye. The agitated beast has been disturbed enough. The end of the Prologue frantically promises to tell Orango’s story with singing and dancing.

Such a circus would seem a challenge to stage, but not to Peter Sellars. As with The Tristan Project of a few years ago, Sellars used images projected onto massive screens and the unique layout of the hall itself as sets and stage. The images were freshly minted shots of Occupy Wall Street and the “Arab Spring” alternating with images of foreclosures and war planes, analogizing contemporary popular dissatisfaction with the Bolshevik Revolution being celebrated in the Prologue’s overture. The politically charged images were occasionally disturbing but often amusingly juxtaposed (imagine pictures of a neurological monkey experiment shifting back and forth to Wall Street day traders). Sellars placed singers in prominent sections of the house, bringing the show uncomfortably to life. Most notably, Orango lept into the front row of the orchestra section to attack Susanna, seated in the audience. As opera houses move towards sparser sets and psychological exposés, Sellars showed how it most effectively can be done. It was immersive, compelling theater.

Musically, the piece is an exhausting assault of sounds and styles. The orchestra includes saxophones, a banjo, and just about every percussion instrument imaginable. The music is dizzyingly complex, yet not esoterically so. A bombastic patriotic overture soon gives way to a slinky Weill-esque ballet; Stravinsky-esque rhythmic patterns soon become a familiar soprano heroine aria. Still, the music was fresh, exciting and listenable, at a free-flowing dramatic pace. McBurney certainly deserves credit for an orchestration that was not at all distracting to the point of being very believable Shostakovich.

The majority of the singing belongs to The Entertainer, a sort of cabaret-style emcee. The part was impressively carried by bass-baritone Ryan McKinny. Tenor Michael Fabiano’s Zoologist was lyrically sung, contrasting with the absurdity of his text. Yulia Van Doren’s Susanna and Eugene Brancoveanu’s Orango were both highly sympathetic. Van Doren’s youthful soprano gave Susanna innocence and Brancoveanu’s gentle baritone made Orango more human than ape. All of the small supporting roles were heavily well acted and knowingly sung. The reduced forces of the Los Angeles Master Chorale sounded much larger than they appeared and brought a substantial dramatic presence to the piece.

The performance was impressively polished and prepared. Salonen conducted with assurance and the orchestra responded brilliantly, proving the Conductor Laureate and his orchestra are still patently exceptional in their music making together. The Finnish maestro brought genuine ferocity, and a whiff of spontaneity, but absolute conviction of sound. This was evident even more so in the second half of the program, which inspiringly featured Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony.

Salonen led the LA Phil on a relentless, searing journey through Shostakovich’s massive symphony. The maestro’s Shostakovich had no hint of despair or questioning. The performance portrayed the composer as angry and driven while shouting out, without equivocation, that this was his true artistic voice come to fruition. The orchestra executed brilliantly, particularly in the string fugue in the middle of the first movement, which was as precise as it was frantic. If there was occasional ambiguity of ensemble at entrances, they were immediately cleared up and overshadowed by a driving organic force. Esa-Pekka Salonen led the way and displayed not only persuasive affection for the works of Shostakovich, but also made the composer’s music as alive and relevant today as any in the repertoire.

Matthew Martinez



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