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The limits of multi-Mayakovsky

Keith Gallasch: Sydney Chamber Opera, Mayakovsky


Mayakovsky, Sydney Chamber Opera Mayakovsky, Sydney Chamber Opera
photo Zan Wimberley
In an evocation of the life of Vladimir Mayakovsky, composer Michael Smetanin, librettist Alison Croggon and Sydney Chamber Opera splinter the great Russian poet’s psyche into multiple voices (sung and spoken), personae and video images in a multimedia fantasia that belies the simplicity of the poet’s heroic public recitations, if not the complexity of his verse—at once populist and startlingly modernist before Soviet Realism erased every conceivable kind of formalism and many artists’ lives.

The dramatic structure of Michael Smetanin and Alison Croggon’s Mayakovsky is above all, as a fellow audience member quipped, “bio-pic.” It tracks key events of the poet’s life—his fame, a love affair, despair (political and romantic) and suicide, interwoven with appearances by Lenin, Stalin and agitprop revolutionary workers who delineate the narrowing political compass of the Russian Revolution. The chronological narrative is however framed as interplay between present and future, opening with Rorschach Test-like video projections and a grimly realised version of the Phosphorescent Woman from Mayakovsky’s satirical comedy The Bathhouse, in which she’s an emissary from a glorious Communist state a millennium hence. A more immediate future subsequently manifests in the form of the poet’s cynical alter ego, the Author, walking from the audience into Mayakovsky’s presence a century ago. The hectoring Author torments Mayakovsky with the failure of the revolution, the compromising of his art and his sanctification by Stalin as the Poet of the People. Once the latter acclamation would have meant almost everything to a poet, who regarded the practice of his arts as self-sacrifice for the greater good. But as conformism becomes the order of the day, Mayakovsky’s inordinate idealism is collapsing.

Mayakovsky, Sydney Chamber Opera Mayakovsky, Sydney Chamber Opera
photo Zan Wimberley
The externalisation of the poet’s inner anxieties via an accusatory alter ego is a familiar device, which provides the opera with a certain amount of tension but inclines the Mayakovsky character towards the mono-dimensional, until the weight of his failures overwhelms him—even then it’s a bloody tussle with the Author. Baritone Simon Lobelson is a vocally powerful Mayakovsky—obtuse, strident, grandiose, suffering—but his role as the people’s poet is undercut by having the poems intimately voiced-over by Alex Menglet. It’s interesting to hear the Russian (while straining to read subtitles, right angled to the stage!) but I wanted to see Mayakovsky addressing the masses, with or without microphone or megaphone, in full voice (English would have been fine) and standing tall on the illuminated platform that Lenin and Stalin otherwise occupy. We also hear the voice of the actual Mayakovsky from a 1914 recording (which in extended, treated form is also used to structurally underpin the opera; see the interview with the composer, RealTime Profiler, 2 July).

The splitting of the man—into poet, Author, a Russian reciter and Mayakovsky himself as voice—might heighten our sense of the man’s contradictions and the pain they, the state and lover Lilya Brik (Jessica O’Donoghue) cause him but the fragmentation doesn’t necessarily add up. His character becomes diffuse regardless of Croggon and Smetanin’s considered working of his poems and phrases and images from them into the vocal score.

Mayakovsky’s enduring love for Lilya Brik (initially realised in a ménage a trois with her husband Osip Brik) was as impossible to fulfil as his political idealism and just as destructive. This dimension of the poet’s life is simply told, amusingly with “The Cloud in Trousers” as a courting song and affectingly when Lilya explains to him once more, here in urgent, rising notes that his passion exhausts her. She withdraws from him, as does the state. The combination of incredible neediness on the one hand and aggressive expressiveness on the other is associated with artists, but the suicidal outcome (one of several attempts) is extreme. Both drives demand emotional reciprocity, from a lover and from an audience—where the lover is also audience and the people bestow love. To the end Mayakovsky suffered as much for his love (too vast for a lover) as for his Cultural Bolshevik idealism (too singular, too personal for the state). With its structural mechanics focused on the latter, the opera’s diffusiveness denies us a cogent vision of Mayakovsky, however much his life defies a single view.

Alison Croggon’s libretto is in fine sync with Michael Smetanin’s score; together they capture the urgency of Mayakovsky’s declamatory verse and highlight its ever-surprising imagery. The music for the small but powerful instrumental ensemble with electronics is bracing, from opening monumental brassy thunder to static-challenged fanfare, revolutionary workers’ choruses (almost out of Brecht) and the final cataclysmic roar of radio waves and a lone siren’s lament. There are rarer, scintillating passages of quiet, subtly textured beauty. Early electronic music is evoked and the diverse musical forms that coalesced in the 20s are finely woven through the score without resorting to pastiche. The vocal scoring however was neither as subtle, varied or embracing, feeling less like song than hyper-articulated speech or latter-day recitative, as in much 20th century opera, with the orchestra filling out the lyricism and passion.

Mayakovsky suffered from a superfluity of theatrical and thematic devices, the sheer volume of surtitle reading and Kat Henry’s ultra busy conventional direction (with young opera actors grappling with an awkward mix of naturalistic and stylised moves). Hanna Sandgren’s design (six metre-wide drops suggestive of columns that become Stalin’s wall against art) doubled as a screen for a plethora of visual effects. The sculpture above made little sense—perhaps a nod in the direction of early Modernism or even Constructivism (which might have inspired a more cogent design). The decision to show the surtitles and video on a wall to the hard left of the audience reduced the work’s intelligibility and the impact of the Phosphorescent Woman who, above all, should have been addressing us directly as well as the characters onstage.

With Mayakovsky, Sydney Chamber Opera continues its brave commitment to 20th and 21st century opera. If design and direction are not of the company’s usual high standard, the opera will doubtless benefit from its first outing. It cries out for re-thinking by its creators and a less encumbered production. Smetanin and Croggon’s de-centred Mayakovsky doesn’t have the charisma that could enthral masses of workers. He is denied the introspection that would convey a tragic sense of self presaging the poet’s downfall. Instead, we have pathos rather than tragedy. Yes, the words, music and multimedia dynamics of the opera spell out Mayakovsky’s unresolvable plight with varying degrees of intensity and insight, but no more than that.

I can vividly recall the All Out Ensemble’s Selling Ourselves for Dinner in Jim Sharman’s 1982 Adelaide Festival. Performed in a carpark and scripted by another Cultural Bolshevik, Chris Barnett, it realised Mayakovsky’s spirit with frightening, almost overwhelming vigour and clarity, portraying an artist consumed by his art, politics and love. We soared with Mayakovsky, and we fell with him.


Sydney Chamber Opera & Carriageworks, Mayakovsky, composer Michael Smetanin, librettist Alison Croggon, conductor Jack Symonds, director Kat Henry performers Simon Lobelson, Jessica O’Donoghue, Sarah Toth, Lotte Betts-Dean, Mitchell Riley, Brenton Spiteri, design Hanna Sandgren, lighting Guy Harding, AV design, Davros, Carriageworks, Sydney, 28 July-2 Aug

RealTime issue #123 Oct-Nov 2014 pg. 42

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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