By Ted AYALA
In 1934, the young Dmitri Shostakovich, 27 years old at the time, was at the apex of his youthful career. His opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District” premiered to sold-out performances in Moscow and Leningrad in 1934, and by 1936 had been performed over 200 times. It was also performed abroad to wide acclaim, including a memorable performance in New York by the Cleveland Orchestra under Artur Rodzinski. For audiences and critics both in his native Russia and abroad, the opera seemed to fulfill the promise of his youthful “First Symphony.”
All that changed after Josef Stalin attended a January 1936 performance of Lady Macbeth at the Bolshoi Theatre. Incensed by what he saw and heard, Stalin and his entourage abruptly stormed out in the middle of the performance. An editorial entitled “Muddle Instead of Music” appeared in Pravda two days later, excoriating the music. By the close of 1936, the composer had been made to publicly atone for his “coarse, primitive, and vulgar” music, and withdraw his “Fourth Symphony” (which would not be performed until December 1961). He would also never complete another opera again.
In the years before and after the Lady Macbeth debacle, the composer worked on various operatic projects, but ultimately left them incomplete. Beginning in the 1970s, some of these works were exhumed from the composer’s archives and readied for performance. The latest unfinished work is “Orango,” a 1934 commission from the Bolshoi Theatre.
Discovered in 2004 by Olga Digonskaya, the opera is an acidulous satire on the capitalist West in the mold of the composer’s ballet “The Golden Age,” which centers on the ravings of its eponymous half-man, half-ape protagonist.
It fell to the Los Angeles Philharmonic (LAPO) to give the world premiere of the extant section of the opera – a 40-minute prologue. On Dec. 2, 3, and 4 at the Walt Disney Hall, the LAPO, under its emeritus conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, will be performing the opera when it will paired with the composer’s “Fourth Symphony.” British composer and musicologist Gerard McBurney has prepared and orchestrated the work, which was left only in a piano and vocal score by the composer.
“This is an absolutely fascinating project for me,” said Esa-Pekka Salonen about the opera. “It’s very sad to see this young genius bursting with creativity, ideas, and joy – and you know a few years later his wings will be cut.”
Tickets are available from the LAPO’s box office at (323) 850-2000 or by visiting the LAPO’s website at www.laphil.com.