The audience missed its cue on the opening night of "Victory Over the Sun," the Russian futurist opera that ran through seven performances this weekend in Baird Auditorium. People sat quietly until the end of the 46-minute spectacular and then they applauded, when obviously they were supposed to tear up the seats, throw cabbages at the stage and break into bitter fistfights between diehard opponents and ardent supporters.
This may mean that we don't make bourgeoisie today the way we did in 1913, or it may mean that futurism is a thing of the past. It probably means both. How can we be shocked and outraged in 1981? Only a human sacrifice would shock us at this point -- and after one season, that would become deja vu. It would also be impossible in this show, which has no recognizably human characters.
What futurism produced early in this century was mostly manifestoes, which it raised to the level of art. But its impact on Russian avant-garde painting can be seen in the current exhibit at the Hirshhorn, and "victory Over the Sun," brought in from California in conjunction with that exhibit, shows futurism wading into turn-of-the-century conventions like Samson into the Philistines. Its substitute for these conventions, as shown in this opera, is an obsession with the future, which translates into a variety of spoken and visual manifestoes, a worship of machinery and a hatred for the past -- fortunately leavened with a zany humor that looks ahead to surrealism and sideways to such pop phenomena as vaudeville and Krazy Kat.
There is also a strong element of Cubism in the costumes and backdrops -- designed after Kazimir Malevich's originals -- which are the best part of this production. Of Mikhail Matiushin's music for the original production, only 24 bars remain, but they were supplemented in compatible style by music-director Jerry Frohmader and sung (as was apparently intended) in an earnest amateur style by earnest amateur singers. Produced in the year that also saw the birth of "Pierrot Lunaire" and "Le Sacre du Printemps," Matiushin's score was probably not the masterpiece -- or the shocker -- of the year.
Plot and themes are -- calculatedly -- fragmented beyond coherence, with many sections, not meant to be understood, that 1981 audiences enormously enjoy not understanding. There is surely a frisson in watching the show begin by having the curtains torn apart, the scene changes indicated by tearing down and carrying away the backdrops -- until one learns that they weren't really torn, they were held together with anachronistic Velcro. This may be cheating -- like playing Bach on the piano -- but a better comparison is probably the New York Pro Musica's beloved interpretation of "The Play of Daniel." This production was equally an act of historic piety, a tribute to a quaint era of the past, and it probably came about as close to the original.