Opus 27: The Bolt (1930-1931)

The Bolt, op. 27 (1930-1931)
DVD:  Bolt (BelAir classiques BAC020)
The Bolshoi Ballet; Anastasia Yatsenko, Andrew Merkuriev, Denis Savin, Morikhiro Iwata; Alexei Ratmansky, choreography; Orchestra of the State Theatre Bolshoi, Pavel Sorokin, conductor

Bolt is a critically well-liked, animated Disney film about a dog who thinks he has super powers.  Dig a little bit deeper into your DVD search results and you find Bolt, a video release of the Bolshoi Ballet’s production of Shostakovich’s ballet.  (The title usually carries a definite article in translation.)  As Laurel Fay relates, Shostakovich drolly summarized the work’s scenario to his friend Ivan Sollertinsky partway through his work on the production:

The content is very topical.  There’s a machine.  Then it breaks down (problem of wear and tear on equipment).  Then they fix it (problem of amortization), and at the same time they buy a new one.  Then everyone dances around the new machine.  Apotheosis.  All this takes three acts.

Viktor Smirnov’s libretto was subsequently reformatted to play up the theme of sabotage, “wreckers” being a popular scapegoat for the failure of the Soviet Union’s industrial projects at the time.  This 2006 Bolshoi production holds to the general plot — a dissatisfied shirker tosses a bolt into a factory’s machinery, only to have his plan thwarted by his fellow workers — while discarding a couple of original elements (the involvement of a drunken priest, an apparently raucus churchyard scene) and, judging by Gerard McBurney’s note on the Boosey & Hawkes website, cutting an act’s worth of music, nearly sixty minutes.  Gennady Rozhdestvensky has recorded the full score on Chandos, but it’s better to be able to watch a dance production.

And, really, I suspect the excised music is no great loss.  I’m a little bit familiar with the ballet suite already, or more accurately I’ve listened to it on disc a few times; the music has unfailingly gone in one ear and out the other.  Shostakovich’s score is typically colorful and it functions well enough moment to moment but, more than usual, it lacks memorable tunes.  A few minutes after listening, nothing remains but a sense of the trajectory and high-level outline of the music — a trilling crescendo, a self-consciously huge fanfare, a fragmentary outburst of one dance style or another.  In contrast to The Golden Age, the original Bolt production apparently attempted a more accessible blend of high-art and popular elements, both in its choreography and its music — as Alone did in following New Babylon, the authors pull back from the earlier, highly criticized avant-garde approach — and Shostakovich’s music feels squared off and somewhat rote, stylistically similar to the third symphony albeit with considerably more satire.  The ballet failed anyway after one or two performances.  Simon Morrison’s booklet essay for the DVD floats the dubious idea that its rhetorical emptiness deliberately works to undermine and criticize its ostensibly utopian program; Occam’s razor suggests that the young composer, busy as always and committed to a troubled ballet production whose premise didn’t interest him, just didn’t write his best music.

A middling Shostakovich effort still produces several individual highlights and, all in all, the Bolshoi production is fun to watch.  I don’t have a good critical eye for ballet — put less charitably, I don’t understand it too well — but their Bolt looks uniformly well danced and sharply staged.  I don’t know who to credit with the revised scenario (maybe the choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky?) but it provides a love triangle among the wrecker, his sometime love interest, and an upstanding worker, and, in an odd but effectively destabilizing move, deliberately loses track of its central character within a dream-sequence Red Army revue that occupies the show’s final scene.  I don’t know how Shostakovich’s music was put to use in the original scenario but here the overture and opening scene sound mostly heavy and dramatic, interspersed with ironical episodes; a factory opening is scored to one of the score’s better straight-ahead crescendos, good for what it is:

The most interesting music ends up in a nightclub scene in which the despondent wrecker gets himself drunk, set to insinuating trombones and high saxophone lines.  Short episodes feature various, cartoonishly drawn barflies, but Denis Savin as the wrecker gets the highlight — After taking a swing at a rival, he performs a swaggering, drunken routine set to muscular music, with the glockenspiel occassionally piping in over heavy-footed brass and drums:

The set design tends toward angular and often foggy machinery, inspired by kitschy Socialist Realist designs; many backgrounds feature large, girder-like robots that sometimes wheel around slowly in between scenes, fulfilling the production’s recommended allowance of theatrical arbitrariness.  The final scene, with dancers whimsically costumed as navy ships and Red Army entertainers dressed in red vinyl, has fun with the propagandistic mess of the ballet’s original concept.  The music for the finale consists, mostly, of bright, carnivalesque numbers — there still isn’t much to grab onto musically but it’s solid music for a spectacle.

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