‘Socialist Realism comes to the Met Stage’

Socialist Realism has frequently been badly received outside of its intended audience. The following is a memorable review by Harold C. Schonberg for the New York Times on a production of Kiril Molchanov’s The Dawns are Quiet Here.

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New York Times, July 14, 1975.

‘Socialist Realism Comes to Met Stage’

Presumably, there was a political reason for the Bolshoi Opera to bring ‘The Dawns are Quiet Here’ by Kiril Molchanov to the Metropolitan Opera. It is hard to think of any other.

The opera had its premiere this year in Moscow, and its American premiere yesterday afternoon. It is the very paradigm of a socialist realist work of art. It carries an inspirational message. It has dollops of folk music. It celebrates the heroism of Soviet woman. It is sentimental, patriotic, and just plain awful.

Musically, most of it is pre-Rimsky-Korsakov, though there are some fleeting echoes of Shostakovich and Prokofiev, and some amplified effects. ‘The Dawns are Quiet Here’ runs two hours, and after the first 15 minutes its harmonic blandness and complete lack of originality make the score sound absolutely interminable. There was, however, one interesting aspect. If the Russian were proud enough of the opera to bring it here, what on earth do other contemporary Soviet operas sound like?

The libretto is as boring as the music. Nothing ever really happens. ‘The Dawns are Quiet Here’ is in one respect unusual. It is written for only one male singing role and a large number of women. These women are members of an antiaircraft company, and four them, plus the male sergeant, go off to capture what they think are two infiltrating Germans. The two turn out to be 16, and all the women are killed.

All of the opera is told in flashbacks. Each girl has her own flashback, and the types are as carefully selected as they were in those old American war movies. But those movies did not pretend to art, while ‘The Dawns are Quiet Here’ does. The libretto gives us the Jewish intellectual type, the farm girl, the jazz-loving city girl, and the introspective one. At the end they come marching back, symbols of the Great Patriotic War, and stand in defiant poses. MGM never did better.

No use belaboring the point. The production is semi-stylized: realistic drops of trees and lake, symbolistic barracks and dwelling. Of the five principals, Artur Eusen as Vaskov was a dependable bass and a reliable actor. Galina Borisova as Rita produced some hooty sound, and also some very impressive ones in the lower register. Elena Obraztova, as Zhenka, sang in her usual inconsistent style. Her vocal production remains patchy, but she is an unusually authoritative artist nevertheless.

From a purely vocal standpoint, the best singing came from Galina Kalinina as Liza. She sang her second-act vocalise in a sweet, clear way. Here is one Soviet soprano without the edginess and waver of most of her peers. This lovely singing contrasted cruelly with the quavery, thin work of Klara Kadinskaya as Sonya. As for acting, what could these four women do faced with such cardboard poster characterization? Aleksandr Lazarev conducted with obvious command.

Kiril Molchanov, the composer, is, it should be remarked, also the director general of the Bolshoi Opera. Rank has its privileges.

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Was Schonberg overly-harsh? Listen to the opera and decide.

(from a blogpost originally posted summer 2019)

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