“The Great Lightning”. Unfinished Opera
Grand Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic (concert performance). Conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky.
Score in Vol. 23 of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Collected Works (Muzyka Publishers, Moscow, 1986); Piano score in Vol. 28 of the same publication (1986).
Mariinsky Theatre of Opera and Ballet, St. Petersburg.
The Great Lightning
Shostakovich began composing the opera The Great Lightning at the request of the Leningrad Maly Opera Theatre. At the very beginning of 1932, information appeared in the Rabochi i teatr magazine that ‘the theatre is preparing a Soviet music performance for the 15th anniversary of the October Revolution. Text by N. Aseyev. Music by Shostakovich.’ It also followed from the announcement that the performance was to be staged by a young director called E. Kaplan, and artist Rabinovich was to be entrusted with its scenography. This joint work between Shostakovich and Aseyev had still not been named The Great Lightning, but there was no doubt that the matter concerned precisely this opera. It soon became known that the planned premiere was conceived in the comedy genre.
On 15 February of the same year, Shostakovich informed the Sovetskoe iskusstvo newspaper about two works he was composing for the 15th anniversary of the revolution. One of them was a five-movement symphony (or poem) called ‘From Karl Marx to Our Days’, the text for which was to be written by Nikolai Aseyev. ‘The second work is a comic opera in three Acts, also using Aseyev’s text. The theme is a Soviet citizen abroad in the unfamiliar setting of a capitalist society. The opera is to be staged at the Leningrad Maly Opera Theatre. The libretto should be ready in a month, after which I will begin writing the music to the opera.’ Consequently, it can be presumed that work on the opera began no earlier than the second half of March.
At the end of the 1920s and beginning of the 1930s, Shostakovich had several musical-theatrical ideas of comical-satirical nature, one of which was the satirical anti-religious ballet Morals based on a libretto by Kasyan Goleizovsky, the comic opera on everyday life Karas based on Nikolai Oleinikov’s theme, the opera Orango, in the genre of a political pamphlet about the morals of the bourgeois press, and others. The burlesque-satirical theme of The Great Lightning intrinsically blended into this sphere of the composer’s creative pursuits.
Since the theatre asked Shostakovich to write The Great Lightning (judging by the first reports in the press) at the beginning of 1932 and staging of the performance was scheduled for the 15th anniversary of the revolution, it can be presumed with certainty that work on the opera was completed no later than the autumn of 1932.
In the music for The Great Lightning, Shostakovich sardonically used quotes from R. Glier’s ballet The Red Poppy (in No. 3, ‘The Architect’s Song’, when he orders for ‘the room to be made ready in Russian style’, during mention of the red poppy), from the Russian folk song ‘A Birch Tree Stood in the Meadow’ (also in No. 3, with respect to the mug for fermented-bread kvass); in No. 9 ‘Procession of the Models’ (bars 13-15), a reminder of the topic from Beethoven’s piano rondo Rage over a Lost Penny can be heard, and so on.
The premiere of the unfinished opera The Great Lightning was held by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky on 11 February 1981 in the Grand Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic (concert performance).