The Big Lightning (no opus number, 1932; incomplete)
CD: “Dmitri Shostakovich: Orchestral Works”, various soloists, USSR Ministry of Culture Chamber Choir and Symphony Orchestra, Gennady Rozhdestvensky (BMG/Melodiya 74321 59058 2)
Shostakovich wrote just under twenty minutes of music for his planned operetta, The Big Lightning. It fits the mold of his other, more advanced failure-to-launch projects at the time: An agitprop scenario, an unpromising libretto (by one Nikolai Aseyev in this instance), and an unhappy end to the project, although in this case the result wasn’t a disastrous premiere but complete abandonment. To be fair, as Laurel Fay indicates, Shostakovich was spending a great deal of his energy at the time on getting Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk onstage.
It would be interesting to hear the operetta’s sensibility stretched to full length; the music, in a lyrical and fairly traditional light-opera mode, is as approachable as The Bolt’s but lacks the ballet’s tendency towards bloviation. Although, on the other hand, I suspect it would be wearying — Shostakovich is better at turning out tunes than he’s generally given credit for but he doesn’t hit on an especially catchy melody that often, and when he’s doing his best work his material, while likable, feels predictable over long stretches. My recollection of his much later operetta Moscow, Cheryomushki bears that out.
Seventeen minutes is, at any rate, a good-sized dose of the stuff. Gennady Rozhdestvensky prepared a concert version of the fragmentary work in the early 1980s and made the present recording soon after. It gets a lusty performance, although the strangely echoey acoustics suggest a particularly forbidding, Soviet-era music hall, or perhaps an abandoned airport hangar. This two-disc, now-deleted BMG reissue, for as much as it’s been a staple for me so far, comes with a sloppily assembled booklet, and along with botching a couple of characters’ names it doesn’t include the libretto. Thus it was, on first listening, extremely hard to gauge what’s going on — a particular kiss of death for anything comical — but for the occasional recognizable word (recognizable to a non-Russian speaker like me, anyway) like “Bolshevik”:
It occurred to me at some point to look up Valery Polyansky’s recording of the work on Chandos and, sure enough, they’ve got the full text and a free downloadable booklet to boot. (Their mp3 preview also indicates that Rozhdestvensky doesn’t miss much by excluding a short scene of a Soviet delegate calling some wrong numbers, other than the musical tone-painting of a telephone ringer.) The lilting romance of “Semyon’s Song” becomes snappier when you realize he’s boasting about the superiority of his firm’s racing automobile. The other numbers benefit more modestly from the mere awareness of what’s being sung about.
The excerpt above — a “Song of the Architect” who, as it happens, is preparing a building in his capitalist home country for the arrival of a Soviet delegation — is the high point of the suite, a blend of easy songfulness, loopy good humor (there’s the flexatone again), and a couple of sharp, sufficiently surprising turns in musical direction. Another high point is the final “Procession of the Models”, a repeat of the “Waitresses” number in Declared Dead, which, like a couple of spots in The Golden Age, achieves something like the light-footed charm of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet:
There’s nothing that I’d call essential listening here, not even for an involved but still non-insane Shostakovich fan, but it’s fun to hear.