Ice and Steel

Vladimir Deshenov’s 1929 opera Ice and Steel, based (loosely) on the Kronstadt sailors’ revolt of 1921 isn’t very good but it is of some interest as one of the very first Soviet era works for the operatic stage.  The libretto, by Boris Lavrenjov, is so crude it might be project work for GCSE Stalinist Propaganda.  In the first act black marketeers and sundry other anti-socials are rebuked by sound workers and the political police.  Next we move to grumbling factory workers who are, again, rebuked by the politically sound ones  news of the Kronstadt rising reaches Petrograd and a rather dodgy looking commissar recruits the loyal workers to help put down the rising.  The one character with any real individuality, Musja, a female organizer in a metal works, volunteers to infiltrate the mutineers.  Meanwhile a really motley band of counter-revolutionary elements; SRs, a Mensheik, foreign agents, Tsarist officers, a çi devant aristo vamp and anarchist sailors, argue among themselves in the fortress.  Musja is unmasked and tortured as a spy but as the Soviet infantry launch their famous attack across the ice she manages to blow up the key defensive position and herself.  Cue heroic revolutionary tableau vivant and curtain.

The music is slightly better than the libretto but not by much.  It has some fairly lyrical patches and some bits that sound like second rate Shostakovich but that’s as good as it gets.  Much of the rest of the score could be described as “Vogon minimalism” and really does sound like the proverbial flock of owls in a bicycle factory.  In the 2007 DVD recording I watched from Saarbrücken, conductor Will Humburg and his Saarländisches Staatsorchester do their best with it.

Similarly director Immo Karaman and choreographer Fabian Posca make a heroic attempt at creating an interesting stage piece out of the unpromising libretto.  Unsurprisingly they opt for a Constructivist aesthetic and many scenes are posed as tableaux that resemble paintings and posters from the era.  The costumes and lighting effectively reinforce their vision.  What they can’t do is get past the fact that Musja is the only character of any interest and she’s a bit of a cardboard cut out.  Anaa Toneeva does a good job with what she has to work with in the role.  Beyond Musja it’s an ensemble piece wth about as many solo roles as Prokofiev’s War and Peace; none of them very well developed as characters, but more than adequately portrayed by the ensemble and chorus of the Saarländisches Staatstheater.

Brooks Riley makes a very nice job of the video direction, perhaps aided by the fact that this is no way a star vehicle.  In any event, we get a good view of what’s happening on stage without weird angles or excessive close ups.  The technical production for DVD is fine with vivid DTS 5.1 sound (Dolby 5.1 and LPCM stereo also offered) and a picture that is about as good as DVD gets.  The booklet has a useful essay setting the context for the piece as well as a track listing and synopsis.  There are English, French, German, Russian, Spanish and Chinese subtitles.

I can’t really recommend this but full credit to the Saarlanders for doing it rather than adding yet another La Traviata to the list.

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