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Semyon Kotko
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Matthew Paris
 

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Post Fri Jan 30, 2004 9:01 pm - Semyon Kotko
1

I attended the Kirov production of Sergei Prokeffiefís Semyon Kotko on July 9th where these Mravinsky Theatre stalwarts of St. Petersburg are doing another revelatory series of operas at the Met. The first class orchestra and the masterful Valery Gurgiev were superb ipissimi of the idiom.
However Russian tenors usually have a nasal articulation sometimes slightly annoying to wester ears, accustomed as they were to the Italian style of belting out the notes in full voice from the throat. Yevgeny Strashko as the protagonist looked the part of the good, honest soldier was capable in the Russian nasal style as was the beautiful Irena Mataeva as his sweetheart; the spectacular performance with a much more complex character was the vulture-elike Fedor Kuzmetov playing the rich landowner villain.
Vocally and as an actor, the Icabod Crane-like Kuzmetov was incomparable in an over-the-top performance. He was athletic as well as everything else; once he rolled around the stage and sang beautiful. The huge cast was all idiomatic and brilliant. The set by Semyon Pastukh, a sort of expressionistic industrial wasteland that seemed with its deceptively translucent floor to be floating on a lake of arterial blood, was especially astonishing as well s suited perfectly to the action of this war story.
The costumes by Galina Soloyeva were precisely the right blend of mild paradox and recognizable paradigms the composer was clearly classing for. Since Prokeffief co-wrote the libretto with the novelist whose book he took this tale from,
Semyon Kotko is particularly a personal and idiosyncratic opera as mich as are Wagnerís music-drams; it aims for a detailed kind of artistic control. Prokeffief was hoping for Meyerhold, a well known Soviet expressionist of the 1920s to stage it, but the poor man was arrested for mounting another production. Such was Prokeffiefís luck generally in the opera world.
Even among such production disasters as his The Gambler two decades earlier, Semyon Kotko had a terrible initial fortune
nearly interring it alive in its early life. It was written in 1940 at the height of the Stalin era two years into the Hitlerian war, a decade into the horrendous Ukraine genocides, a few years after the general destruction of the old Bolsheviki during the Stalin trials.
Prokeffief was literally chancing being executed for writing Semyon Kotko. It was denounced immediately by a Stalinist citric as ďformalistĒ and closed down immediately like a leper. It wasnít revived in Russia for decades afterwards in any form; since most people in the West were very antagonistic to Soviet Art and culture and from a look at its plot, Semyon Kotko seems if merely on the face of it like a shameless Communist propaganda tract though in real life it was closed down as an odium by Stalin. Nobody gave this hapless opera a second look for a long time.
Since the 1970s when it was clear that a wider repertory for opera was necessary to attract customers who didnít want to hear their favorite singer do a chestnut like La Boheme, some Prokeffief operas have never had a run; until recently we never saw or even heard of the seemingly dead on arrival Semyon Kotko. Wean I left the Met on the night I saw it I heard on the bus going home, always filled with Met and new York State Opera zealots, some of the objections to Semyon Kotko that would have been more proper to make at a wine and cheese party thrown at an Upper West Side spa by the bibulous ghost of the late Senator Joe McCarthy. Some prejudices apparently last longer that other nasty habits and compulsions. ďItís propagandistic claptrap though the music is great,Ē one bus rider muttered typically.
Well, Semyon Kotko isnít anything of the sort. Itís precisely what Stalin thought, deeply if covertly anti-Bolshevik. Yes, it finishes with a short sugary final scene extolling Lenin and Leninism. Beyond that the characters are complicated, the plot complex and even subtle, its music not all that different in its beauty and sublimity from his Symphony Number Five, all of it both musically and in its tale except for that last scene of a high standard very plainly to everyone but the composer liable to get Prokeffief into big trouble with the guntoting authorities. Stalin was big on folk tunes and populist sounding music maned dressed up with minor seconds; this score hasnít got any of that. Stalin didnít want complexity in anything. Maybe thatís why he was into killing.
Prokeffief has three sets of villains, old landowners, German military occupiers, Ukrainian Cossacks and stewards reading history wrong. One can't help thinking as one watches this supposed villains that none of them are evil. They are just on the wrong side of a cause whose subsequent history revealed the moral or amoral nature of what we see on stage much more than even Prokeffief would have found comfortable or even admissible. After all, ten years after this opera set in 1920, Stalin launched into his Ukrainian starvation campaign which murdered several million Ukrainians. An opera making Ukrainian folk sympathetic couldnít have been an easy case to make to Uncle Joe. None of Prokeffiefís sympathetic characters express any Bolshevik sentiments whatsoever. They are classical types who want to get married, value love, personal trust and erotic passion, hardly Bolshevik virtues, are probably natural pacifists who want to lead private lives, have general emotions that have no politics whatsoever.
The Ukrainians, not often beloved by Russians, are almost always sympathetic but they are seen unsentimentally; they display their warts too. As with Mozart and Shakespeare any virtue n a character never appears without its parody in some more light witted spirit.
I really want to demolish any argument such as I heard on that bus that Semyon Kotko is has a trashy super-Soviet libretto. Au contraire. We may not like it but its libretto isnít at all brainless or dumb. Itís model in its baroque complexity and the way politicks pushes people around of all kinds is Moussorskyís Boris Godunov, of course. So are the shapes of its vocal lines wedded to Russian and flooding over the bar lines in the manner of Moussorsky, Rimsky Korsakoff and Janacek.
The music is in this sort of opera is always mostly in the orchestra. Occasionally the orchestra will double a sublime vocal line; mostly it comments slyly on the singing and action. Prokeffief must have written the most elaborate and cunning tuba parts in musical history.
In the end we go to operas for the music, I think. Semyon Kotko has a very good libretto whose comic aspects may remind one of Da Ponteís work for Mozart; most of all, it has great bustling, witty and beautiful music.
If weíve heard a lot of Prokeffief weíve heard other music of his, symphonic and operatic, that sounds much like this opera. One either likes certain composers of this kind or one doesnít. Itís not true as Dellapiccola said that Vivaldi wrote the same concerto five hundred times; it us true that with some exceptions the Venetian Red priest fell back on previous methods of execution as did Puccini and Rossini.
Itís still uncompromising music; Prokeffief wasnít a hack or a whore, he didnít produce any work in a grey impersonal idiom as many American composers on tenure have. He continued to write to the end in a manner that made some fair comprises; he was never fashionable, never other than himself. Itís no wonder the Stalinists couldnít stand him.

2

One could only admire the Kirov execution of this opera, a casualty of this Stalinist repression in its time that has made its very existence largely still unknown here; Semyon Kotko was not even graced with a recording for decades. At tar present Prokeffief is having a major reassessment of his reputation in the West. Originally thought of as an apostle of the machine age along with Leo Ornstein in the critical era of the great James Huneker, he never had in major compositions quite the gift for glittering amusement of Stravinsky if Prokeffief was a beater pianist and just as deliberately sensational.
Sadly, his operas from first to last met with diverse but notably disastrous production problems. In the 1930s, before he went back to Russia, he dispensed with the harmonic density of his earlier style and wrote in a much more lean clear manner that emphasized his consummate melodic gift with its slithering chromatic, ninths used as consonances and vertiginous rope dances on the blurring major and minor third.
The tightrope walking virtuosity of the half steps in his melodic lines, the strange internal voice leading, the fluid and sinister way all the lines tend to act as pedal points for surprising chords, the fiercely and churlishly independent basses, the bizarre and grotesque timbres in all forms didnít change.
Up through the 1950s Prokeffief was known even to the cognoscenti as a composer of one great piano concerto, the third, two violin concerti, two symphonies, the classical first and the harmonically less dense and clearly articulated melodic lines of the fifth, a few spectacular piano sonatas and pieces, the arch comic fable The Love For Three Oranges and not much else. The Long Playing record revolution revealed the virtues of all the piano concertos, each of which were very different, and offered a much more intrepid exploration of his instrumental music.
Yet outside of The Flaming Angel, not his best opera, turned into his Third Symphony and the orchestral suite from The Gambler, one really heard almost no vocal music much less opera from this composer on records. As for the concert halls and opera houses, fugget it.
Yet if operas and history donít change the world does along with its perception of what is immutable. Russian opera doesn't have to be hampered by lack of singers knowing the parts or the language since the gradual freedom that has come to Russia since the 70s. Russian singers not only can do their national repertory; they now star in Verdi operas at the Met. Now in the space of the past five years, thanks largely to the Kirovs, New Yorkers have had a chance to see and hear at their leisure The Abduction From the Monastery, The Gambler, War and Peace, and now Semyon Kotko. We can now assess Prokeffief as even Russia couldnít do so until things got looser there.
One hears as much of him now in New York as Puccini or Mozart. Like Janacek or Handel there is a large audience of listeners, stalwarts showing up for any new opera by their favorite that will widen the range of their appreciation for the composer they tout to the marketplace
One could say about Prokeffief as one might of Janacek and Handel that one has to like the composerís limitations as well as their genius. One isnít going to get any unthinkable surprises form any of them.
On the other hand, since we listen to music in passing, only think of the totality of a piece in retrospect, as long as the solutions moment by moment are brilliant, it probably doesnít occur to us until afterwards that these arenít composers in the business of redefining music like Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven but spinning it out like Schubert, Dvorak or Shostakovitch with their less intellectual approaches to their own genius. It doesnít make them stupider, merely conceptually not as audacious as their talent is.
Itís not as if Prokeffief wasnít capable of astonishing his audience or didnít have plenty of redefinitions of music to offer early in his career. One thinks of the Second Symphony, the Scythian Suite, the Fifth or Ninth Piano Sonata or the Fourth Piano Concerto; one has some idea from them of the range of musical ideas that occurred to this great talent. Yet it should be said that Prokeffief was fundamentally thanking like a symphonist even when he wrote opera.
Semyon Kotko could probably stand as a libretto without the music; beyond a few set arias Prokeffief, as well the librettist, is staging an acted out story adorned by the psychologically mordant commentary in his music.
Prokeffiefís exegesis obviously works better with the grotesque and matters of pathological inquiry than in realism. Itís perfect for studies of dementia like The Gambler and The Flaming Angel, not as obviously applicable to Semyon Kotko and War and Peace, Much of Semyon Kotko has a kind of burlesque quality about it in the music and libretto that mixes wonderfully with its sober tale of attempting to maintain normal life in the middle of political invasions from many sides. It defines the very idiosyncratic and often mildly humorous world of Semyon Kotko though the sardonic aspect is set in some very terrifying environments.
War and Peace though very beautiful is probably the least personal of Prokeffiefís operas because he was not about to make the Tolstoy novel into something more comical than it was.

3

One canít entirely leave a great musical masterpieces if not unlike his other operas in its passing execution like Semyon Kotko without making some assessment of the point of view of it and opera generally as a not overly guised political polemic. We canít help seeing any play, book or opera by anybody in any time differently than they conceived it; we have more information about the subsequent consequences of the action than the Artist did or could ever have.
We also have much less knowledge of the information he had including the allusions he assumes would be banal part of the lateral imagination of his audience.
Either we retreat from that invitation for an assessment which must be motile before us as we normally do when looking as Shakespeareís politics to value virtues more immediately pleasing to us, or we find to our comfort the politicks and other opinions are still viable in a direct way as we do when viewing or reading Aeschylus.
We donít really want to think that Shakespeare would have consider both America and Russia nightmare nations of churls and gulls run by Tamberlaines and Jack Slades. W like to think the Aeon bard was a good populist like us. If weíre lying to ourselves, so what?
Many have as well of that ilk a good onion of Jesus including many of our estimable patriotic Americans who quietly donít value much the Big Jís comments that ďthe poor will always be with usĒ or his commentary on banks which plainly to us didnít include the IMF. We know that ďthe last shall be firstĒ wasnít applicable to the planet of noxious bums whose woes constantly annoy us and which we have to pay taxes for.
The partially of this very cult in its own sacred histories for social intrusiveness and martyrdom doesn't sit well with our Roman sense of order, toleration and tranquility either. Philip Rosh tells us that his Jewish world was sure that Moses and God had exempted Chinese restaurants, particularly spare ribs and egg robs, from the impeccable Torah laws of kashruth.
If we are selective as we are with in honoring the views all these eminent spirits, perhaps it is time to do some justice to the now perished Soviet world as well, not merely honor the rather Tory philosophy not so covertly behind Semyon Kotko, an brave and dangerous opera which pitched a barely sheathed humanism in the middle of rampant Bolshevism and made a case for some myopathy for those who had as we all commonly do including Marx and Lenin postulated he direction of history ineptly.
Considering that the Ukraine in 1920 had been occupied by Poland, Russia, Germany, Austria and earlier the Mongols and other bellicose itinerants the politics on the evidence of the future of the Ukraine had to be murky and probably dismal to the point where it wasnít such a terrible thing for anyone in Semyon Kotko to be on the wrong side of any political cause.
This resonance adds to the comical air in the gallows humor element of this opera. It is real gallows humor because three excellent Ukrainians are hung in front of us in Act Two.
We are only more comfortable with these same subjects in Verdi because we arenít too worried at this juncture as he was about kings and priests in their European guise. They are all lucky they have a job.
When we are living in the middle of a worldwide social revolution as we are and have been for about two and half centuries it behooves us if weíre in a behooving mood to honor those composers and librettists who aim to guide us to at least the questions of who and were we are momentarily in an unstable universe. Prokeffief offers a kind of Tory answer in Bolshevik clothing. That should be interesting to us as the reverse might be to us as well.
I would suggest there might be a larger and more compassionate view of looking at opera or any theatre piece beyond the scholastic wrangles of the previous bloody century that might be nurturing for us. We have for a few hundred years now been rebelling as a planet centrally from the excesses, even the nature of colonialism and empire all over the world.
To me itís plain what the final results will be BTU I could be wrong as some of the characters in Semyon Kotko. It should be an added irony to us about his opera that Prokeffief knew in 1940 as we do in 2003 what the glories of Communism were going to be in 1920 for the Ukraine. The paradox couldnít have been missed by his audience.
In the end with all the bumpiness to genocide, class war to Indian and Ukrainian immense massacres by local tyrants claiming to be populist servants of history, America and Russia have been in the last century centers of two kinds of anti-imperial juggernauts that between them managed most of the world at least partially because they were more republican and palsied than the other two contenders before 1945, England and France.
One might even add Germany; the Third Reich was in its rhetoric if certainly not in any other way very populist, anti-bourgeois, apparently for classical virtues and curve of life much like Semyon Kotko. Iím bringing this up because this inquiry is the intent of the composer and librettist.
Since we all live life in the middle of our it, needing to postpone our judgment of ourselves as well as being putatively weighed in the balance by the divine until our mortality has sorrily expired, each time we write or see an opera, any work of theatrical Art, we write with the idea lurking around it and in the shadows of our rooms like so many heavily gilded cockroaches, all the more puissant when they avoid the light.
Do we really want to be parochial and sectarian to the point of not admitting into respectability the various means however inept by which the world has tried to rid itself of colonialism and inequality?
Francamente, Iíd rather see Semyon Kotko than any of the dismal, ideologically empty, shallow and depressing American operas the new York State Opera puts on, all too predictably dead on arrival. The latest ones floating on the black waters of the Lincoln Center Styx are The Great Gatsby. Dead Man Walking and A View From The Bridge. There are many more of the ilk to come, folks. Mama mia!
A busker doing a vaudeville act in an alley or a grand opera can take on the Aeschylean-Ibsenian intent of asking us unlike this sterile drek who and where we are.
If I have to go to the opera and not professional wrestling extravaganzas to find real bravery, Iím more liable to find it in complex and mercurial theatre with real reflection on our shared enigma of mortality like Semyon Kotko, than elsewhere.
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