In March 1921, Russian sailors, soldiers, workers, and other citizens stood up to the Bolshevik government, then in disarray, in an uprising known as the Kronstadt Rebellion, named for the island fortress outside of Petrograd (St. Petersburg) where it began. The Rebellion was driven by harsh economic conditions, and by dissatisfaction with Bolshevik policies and practices, such as the seizure of land formerly belonging to peasants. Factory strikes and general unrest were the result, and demands were made of the Bolsheviks – demands that they found unreasonable. It seems that the Rebellion even may have had a degree of international support, although to what extent is unclear. Bolshevik forces quickly put down the Rebellion, and the remaining rebels were dealt with harshly. The loss of life, and the significance of the Rebellion (and with the reluctance of many soldiers in the Red Army to quell it) were not lost on Lenin, however, who moved to mitigate some of the economic factors that had given rise to the Rebellion in the first place.
Ice and Steel (Eis und Stahl) is an almost forgotten opera based on the Kronstadt Rebellion. Composed in 1929, it was intended to be a new kind of "Soviet opera" – ideologically acceptable, yet modern enough to prove that the Soviet Union was progressive. Deshevov, whose background was in theater, succeeded in composing a forward-looking score, but was (arguably) unable to hide, if not sympathy for the rebels, then at least a certain amount of ambivalence towards the subject. As a result, Ice and Steel did not have a long performance history in the Soviet Union. This production from 2007, probably its first in more than seven decades, goes even farther. Director Immo Karaman ends Ice and Steel not with the ultimate triumph of the Bolsheviks, but with what appears to be a representation of the end of the Soviet Union. It's too bad, in a way, that our first look at Ice and Steel has to be to revisionist's look, but the temptation to present the opera in this way must have been overwhelming.
Don't expect arias and love duets, and the other trappings of traditional opera. Instead, expect 96 minutes of drama, as boldly and starkly represented with music as the words on a propaganda poster. The music is very effective, and, if you adjust your expectations, quite enjoyable. Deshevov aimed for realism here, and he achieved it with music that is gripping and current even though it is nearly eight decades old. From the intrigue-filled (and intriguing) opening scene in Kronstadt's black market to the patriotic ending (given a bitter, ironic twist by director Karaman), the action sweeps along like a well-edited piece of cinema.
Similarly, don't expect opera stars standing in the footlights and pouring out high notes. The huge cast has been chosen to put across the flares and semaphores of Deshevov's score and Boris Lavrenjov's libretto, and they do it well. Beautiful singing is not the point here. The point is communication, so what we are given instead are large, interesting voices in the possession of singers who can create a character in two or three broad brush strokes.
Karaman's production sometimes confuses, but it is visually effective, and it has an appropriate "commando spirit," if you will. It seems to have made the transition to my television screen well, thanks to the fluid direction of Brooks Riley. The sound (in the three usual formats) and the 16:9 visual format are impressive, and the subtitles – so important in a work like this – are easy to read and seem idiomatic.
Ice and Steel won't be for everyone, but for those with an interest in, say, the young Shostakovich's more outré experiments, or in 20th-century Soviet history, it is well worth exploring.
Copyright © 2009, Raymond Tuttle