- Victory Over the Sun: The World’s First Futurist Opera ed. and trans. by Rosamund Bartlett and Sarah Dadswell
Historians of Russian modernism would surely claim timeless, global significance for Victory Over the Sun, the first Futurist opera. It seems, however, that Russian and Italian Futurists argued relentlessly about who did what first—and maybe an anonymous Italian Futurist sang an aria during a serate before the Russians staged Victory. I do not know, so I leave Futurists past and present to sort out their national differences. As a historian of Russian theatre and performance, I find more curious the canonization of the Italians at the expense of the Russians. Indeed, there is no doubt that Filippo Marinetti and the Italian Futurists have consistently overshadowed the Russians in English-language histories of European theatrical modernism. Several factors have contributed to this neglect: an already fragmented pre-revolutionary movement further disordered by the revolution; the hounding of so-called formalists after the Revolution; lack of access to archives during the Soviet era; and the naming by historians of the avant-garde of Italian—not Russian—futurism as the harbinger of postmodern performance art. Italian Futurist theatre and performance found champions in Roselee Goldberg, Michael Kirby, and Günter Berghaus; Russian Futurism has yet to find such champions in the theatre and performance studies community.
I cannot argue that Rosamund Bartlett and Sarah Dadswell’s Victory Over the Sun: The World’s First Futurist Opera will change anyone’s mind about the primacy of the Italians, but the editors have done theatre historians quite a service by publishing the libretto in both English and Russian, as well as selected contemporaneous reviews, Mariia Ender’s transcription of the original score (inadequate though it is, according to one contributor), and a retrospective essay by the opera’s librettist, Aleksei Kruchenykh. Introduced by Bartlett, part 1 consists of these primary documents (also translated by her). In part 2, readers will find twelve essays of uneven quality and consequence. Essays by Murray Frame and Laurence Senelick tender historical settings for Russian theatre in the late imperial period, while Robert Leach endeavors to summarize Futurism as it manifested in the theatre. Essays by John Bowlt, Christina Lodder, and Anna Wexler Katsnelson reflect on the significance of Kazimir Malevich’s designs for Victory, both in the moment and for his later work. Catja Gaebel and Margareta Tillberg consider Mikhail Matiushin’s score, while Michaela Böhmig illuminates Kruchenykh’s libretto. Characterizing Futurist self-promotion in the language of public relations, marketing, and branding, Dadswell brings their practices closer to modern readers. Finally, Aurora Egidio describes Marinetti’s ill-starred trip to Russia and the rather cold reception he received from the leaders of the Russian movement.
The challenge of evaluating this collection of essays for would-be readers lies in the editors’ purpose. When I finished the first third of the book, I was sure that area specialists constituted the target audience, but by the fourth essay in part 2, my certainty had evaporated. Although the primary documents and several of the essays reflect the abstruse, coterie nature of Russian Futurism, at least three of them—by Frame, Senelick, and Leach—might well serve upper-level undergraduate surveys of late imperial theatre or European modernism. For the most part, these essays are abridged renderings of work published, in Leach’s case, almost twenty years ago. It is unclear to me why the essays by Frame and Senelick are included in an anthology [End Page 611] otherwise devoted to Victory Over the Sun and Russian Futurism more broadly (a point to which I will return below). I suspect that the editors would argue that they provide necessary context, but their inclusion fragments the volume’s implied readership.
Casual followers of Futurism will find the essays by Bömhig, Egidio, and Dadswell most useful. Although not necessarily speaking to generalists, the latter two reflect on topics of general interest. Neither author offers stunningly new revelations, but their essays...