The other day a friend of mine was talking about a thought experiment that became a bestselling book. The Invisible Gorilla refers to selective attention, where significant incongruity may be filtered out if one's focus is elsewhere. The experiment came to mind once more as I watched a semi-staged performance of the Prologue of Orango, an unfinished opera by Shostakovich, given by the Philharmonia and Philharmonia Voices under the direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen as part of the The Rest Is Noise season at the Royal Festival Hall.
MacGuffin in a satirical work, at odds with the hagiograph expected of the composer. Man-as-beast was clearly the metaphor of choice in the 1930s. Where the humanity of King Kong was being asserted, so Berg's Lulu (left incomplete at the composer's death in 1935) draws an explicit parallel with the bestiality of men. The prologue of that opera invites the audience to attend the 'menagerie', referring to the cast indiscriminately as various animals. All of this pre-dates the disappointed anti-Stalinism of Animal Farm by a decade.
There is plenty of satire in Shostakovich's score for Orango, most of it bold-gestured style-pastiche. Yet as Gerard McBurney, who reconstructed the recently discovered piano score, pointed out in the pre-performance talk, the pastiche also, er, apes rather more sober, canonised works of the Russian repertory, from Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony to Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. Indeed, in this performance a 'classic' propaganda film of a girl working a sickle in a field (a sop to a gathered crowd for whom the promise of the ape is not seen as sufficiently 'unusual'!) over-lays the most Westernised part of the score, a laid back dance number with the trademark brush work of a jazz kit drum. Shostakovich's playful eclecticism clearly strayed into the politically transgressive.
The skeletal staging embraced this. Philharmonia Voices were uniform in Miss USSR sash-costumed ensemble as a herd of Communist true-believers. Impressively fine-tuned for three days rehearsal, this included maniacal flag waving, a blissed-out pastoral dance with sunflowers and the veneration of their copies of Pravda (cunningly concealing their scores), led by the foreman baritone of Ashley Riches.
A small ensemble (partly from the ranks of Philharmonia Voices) took roles the front of the stage. Observing this scene of national festival either through binoculars (to suggest the scale of the pageant) or recording it in word or film (to suggest its significance), the titillating subject of the opera holds less interest than the state's achievements - the reverse of The Invisible Gorilla. However, worn down by the sweet tongue of Ryan McKinny's Entertainer, they agree to suffer Orango (Richard Angas), or at least the banana-munching Zoologist (Allan Clayton). A showman cut from the Entertainer's cloth he cannot help but invite trouble, offering Orango a snifter before letting the ensemble get a little closer... the panic that sets in as Orango gets a bit grabby is brought to a stop only with Elisabeth Meister's scene-stealing running scream straight out of the stalls door and the Zoologist's tranquiliser syringe (for me, uncomfortably recalling the sedation of a protestor at an inquiry into the Russian Kursk tragedy in 2000).
The farce comes to an end with the chorus congealed further in identity behind masks (rather like in the Royal Opera's The Minotaur, or even the LSO's recent Oedipus Rex) and the Zoologist munching his way through the bananas intended for his charge. The Philharmonia orchestra, masters of the immediate assimilation of style and equal to the most taxing of individual or corporate passages are ideal for this high-spirited score. Esa-Pekka Salonen enjoys himself without capitulating the shady history of the work's non-completion to its surface appeal. I had also forgotten about the discreet amplification/enhancement that had been overt at the start.
The piece itself is, inevitably, disposable - there simply isn't enough material to make the characters more than their avatars. It's well worth the outing though and certainly helped contextualise the performance of the fourth symphony, given in the second half; as Gerard McBurney noted, the final bookend to this period of Shostakovich's compositional style.