Review: Roman Grygoriv and Illia Razumeiko’s ‘Chornobyldorf’ Burns Bright at the Prototype Festival

The post-apocalyptic opera’s two hours of splendidly nude, eardrum-bursting insanity—without intermission—takes you to the doomed end of humanity.

A nude person holds golden circles on strings in front of a sunburst background
A dancer in ‘Chornobyldorf.’ Artem Galkin

Chornobyldorf: Archeological Opera In Seven Novels is a post-apocalyptic opera in which the last surviving humans on Earth recreate our lost civilization through ritual performance. In post-industrial ruins, performers recreate and misinterpret symbols and stories from human civilization, gradually erasing all meaning until all is dissolved “into the white noise of nature.”

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The performance includes film footage taken by the show’s co-creators, Illia Razumeiko and Roman Grygoriv, of the site of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl and incorporates Ukrainian folk singing, classical music, dance and avant-garde theatrics. Though initially conceived of in 2020 and set hundreds of years in the future, Razumeiko and Grygoriv felt the footage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was like scenes from the opera. Razumeiko told the PA news agency in Kyiv that it was now the opera’s diplomatic mission to show that Ukraine, its language, culture, and history—distinct from Russia’s—still exists.

Nonetheless, Chornobyldorf is hard to quantify, as it hails from an inexplicable school of avant-garde that we don’t see much anymore in New York City. Visually, it is a lush, jewel-toned, fleshy feast of sharp angles and schizophrenic strobe effects, and the political context provided by the co-composers doesn’t do much to help us understand the work. On opening night in New York, Ukraine’s ambassador to the UN was in the audience, and I wondered what he thought of the nude dancers writhing in strobe lights reflected on the disco ball shaped like Lenin’s head. Did he leave feeling as deranged and teased out of thought as I did?

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That’s not a put-down. I approve of any opera where the orchestra stands up, takes off their clothes and joins in a post-Soviet rave. Being handed earplugs by the usher instead of a program was also a welcome novelty. Why not amplify opera? Why not write an opera where the last surviving inhabitants of Earth look like they live in the Mad Max universe but party at the House of Yes?

The performers draping themselves in Ukrainian flags at the curtain call directly after the wildest and most naked opera that I have ever seen was so emotionally discordant that I truly did feel transported to the end of humanity. I am squeamish of all forms of nationalism, but then I don’t live in a country under siege, and, understandably, artists want to connect to their nation at this time. The opera’s sandwich of symbols may be uniquely weird, but it’s also unforgettable: the nude performer, clothed only in gold glitter, sweating beside the red and black flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army.

A nude dancer lit in red lounges on a stage
Review: Roman Grygoriv and Illia Razumeiko’s ‘Chornobyldorf’ Burns Bright at the Prototype Festival Review: Roman Grygoriv and Illia Razumeiko’s ‘Chornobyldorf’ at the Prototype Festival

Again, Chornobyldorf defies analysis. The production’s “Seven Novels” are almost totally inscrutable and therefore infinitely interpretable. Some scenes made me wonder if they were metaphors for the political conflagration of the Euromaidan protests in 2013. But mostly I was so baffled that I resisted narrativizing, yet I was eventually charmed by the old-school modernist alienation. It made me nostalgic for a time when shows that go as hard conceptually as Chornobyldorf were everywhere in lower Manhattan. I was touched by Razumeiko and Grygoriv’s total disinterest in connecting with me and my little human feelings—I didn’t think composers cared enough anymore to want to ensure our alienation.

The performers themselves were excellent, even extraordinary. In particular, the folk vocalists and female presenting dancers gave magical performances. The traditional choral singing was very well done, with the amplification mimicking the overtones created by Slavic women’s folk choruses. And the dancers, who spent almost the entire show naked, at least from the waist up, showed an impressive command of expression, with their beautifully synchronistic, robotic movements in a twitchy sci-fi ballet that stole the show. One dancer still stands out in my mind, progressing downstage carrying gold cymbals as a throat singer made the walls of La MaMa rumble with chthonic groans.

Chornobyldorf isn’t an ‘easy’ opera, but the performers are so committed to the bit—throwing themselves like a joyful circus troupe into a manic stew of wildness—that I was won over by their sheer forcefulness and vim.

Shadows of performers in front of the silhouette of a giant head of Lenin
Performers in front of disco ball Lenin. Review: Roman Grygoriv and Illia Razumeiko’s ‘Chornobyldorf’ at the Prototype Festival

Illia Razumeiko and Roman Grygoriv’s company, Opera Aperta, is named for a term coined by Umberto Eco in 1962 meaning “open work.” The postmodern concept refers to there being multiple meanings in each work of art, shaped by the backgrounds of the audience rather than the single meaning defined by the artist. In 2024, this is a relatively old-fashioned idea when applied to theater, even given my above enthusiasm.

Let’s conclude, therefore, with Chornobyldorf’s musical richness rather than its high-concept staging. The opera has many elements that will excite the modern music enthusiast: microtonal instruments, invented instruments, body electronics, an algorithmic piano called a Rhea-player and Ukrainian polyphonic singing. The sound experience, like a combined opera and noise show, unlike its well-worn avant-garde theatrics, was exciting and new. What The Wooster Group was doing forty years ago has been transformed into a sound journey: an aural adventure that will burn itself into your memory with searing permanence.

A woman in a tutu and combat boots stands in front of the guts of an electronic instrument
A performer in ‘Chornobyldorf.’ Artem Galkin

Review: Roman Grygoriv and Illia Razumeiko’s ‘Chornobyldorf’ Burns Bright at the Prototype Festival