Review of ‘Victory Over the Sun’

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Review of ‘Victory Over the Sun’ by J. P. E. Harper-Scott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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Review of Rosamund Bartlett and Sarah Dadswell, eds., Victory over the Sun: the World’s First Futurist Opera (University of Exeter Press, 2012). Published in the Times Literary Supplement, 2 November 2012, p. 18.

The world’s first Futurist opera, a collaboration by composer Mikhail Matiushin, the librettist Aleksei Kruchenykh, and the designer Kazimir Malevich, was described at the time of its premiere in St Petersburg on 3 December 1913 as “wild, boring, indecent and senseless”. Victory over the Sun has no arias, no female singers, no named or developed characters, essentially no plot, and despite being an opera, it has hardly any music: the longest extant source runs to only fifteen pages. It was performed twice, by under-rehearsed and inadequate singers, to the jangling accompaniment of a clapped-out piano, yet Rosamund Bartlett and Sarah Dadswell suggest that its artistic significance is “comparable to Stravinsky’s explosive score for The Rite of Spring“, which had been premiered seven months earlier.

This book bases its case for the bold claim on an anatomy of the opera’s impact as a spectacular presentation of the new. The documentation is extensive. There are colour and monochrome drawings and photographs of its Cubist sets and costumes, a facsimile of the original libretto – intoxicatingly larded with neologisms (fifty of them in the first thirty lines of Viktor Khlebnikov’s prologue) – and a punchy translation by Bartlett. It is quite difficult to judge the music, since the composer’s manuscripts are exiguous and the transcription by his student (the principal and most detailed source, which is reproduced in full here) is blighted by so many obvious errors that it is impossible to be certain of anything about it. Nevertheless, what survives suggests that the composer had essayed a rather bland cacophany: certainly the score lacks the parodic genius of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire (1912) or Walton’s Façade (1922–9). Still, as part of an iconoclastic whole it does what it needs to, not least by avoiding any gestures that might in the slightest suggest Wagnerism.

The libretto opens up a new, destabilizing world of language which erupts from the interstices of Russian etymology. Bartlett chooses to footnote Kruchenykh’s zaum (“transrational” language) extensively rather than approximate it in English, which is surely a wise move. Michaela Böhmig’s essay on the libretto not only situates the linguistic experiments in Russian modernism but lays bare the misogyny of its rejection of “effeminiate” Symbolism in favour of the brute masculine world of the machine. Although the opera’s revolutionary aesthetic had an internationalist outlook, its opposition to Russian imperial theatre, documented by Murray Frame and Laurence Senelick, and particularly its central thematic focus on humanity’s victory over the sun, the object at the centre of Slavonic mythology, clearly invested it with a special symbolic violence in the dog days of late imperial Russia.

This collection opens fascinating and enriching views into a brief but powerful explosion.


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