Donald Macleod explores works by Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Schnittke - Shostakovich's The Nose, Prokofiev's War and Peace and Schnittke's Life with an Idiot.
Donald Macleod concludes his exploration of a century-and-a-half of Russian opera with works by Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Schnittke. Shostakovich's first opera, The Nose, is a tartly satirical piece based on a short story by Gogol in which a St Petersburg bureaucrat wakes up one morning to find his nose missing from his face; it turns out that the plucky little organ has taken on a life of its own, and is parading around town in the costume of a State Councillor. Even if it wasn't quite clear precisely who was being satirized, The Nose put the Soviet authorities' noses severely out of joint, and the first production was abruptly dropped after only 16 performances. Shostakovich's next opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, was first of all a huge success - then, in a deft spot of Stalinist revisionism, an abject failure. The failure kicked in when Stalin finally got round to attending a performance of the opera, almost two years after its Leningrad première; the great dictator didn't like what he was seeing and hearing, and a now notorious denunciation of the composer followed in the press: "Muddle instead of music!" Prokofiev spent the last 11 years of his life working on his magnificent operatic presentation of Tolstoy's War and Peace, but by this point in his career the composer was irretrievably out of favour with the authorities and several of those 11 years were spent jumping through hoops to try and create an 'acceptable' version of the score. There's little doubt that Stalin would have found Alfred Schnittke's Life with an Idiot, written in the dying days of the Soviet Union, wholly unacceptable. The 'idiot' of the title is Vova, a heavily satirized representation of Lenin, capable of uttering just one sound: "Ekh!".
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