From Long Beach Opera's Moscow, Cherry Town Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff 2011
Operetta is not what most listeners think of when they hear the name Shostakovich. The most prolific of 20th-century Russian composers has a reputation for the severe, despite the significant amount of “lighter” music he wrote for films and other projects. So his lone operetta Moscow, Cheryomushki
might be hard to place at first glance. Which is likely one of the reasons that go-your-own-way Long Beach Opera was attracted to the piece in the first place. Moscow, Cheryomushki,
which premiered in 1959, is a comedy about the bureaucracy around moving into a new public housing project. I’m not kidding. The heroes of the piece are a collective of common workers who have been assigned to live in Cherymushki, the brand new state of the art concrete skyscraper. They are thwarted by a trio of pleasure seeking petty bureaucrats who stand in their way until a collective garden and magic bench intervene. I’m not kidding. It’s madcap in a Russian way that is narratively disjointed even in the English-language version of the libretto translated by British opera impresario David Poutney. But if you want to see for yourself, there is an excellent Russian-made 1963 film version
of the piece that is worth seeing.
But it’s really Shostakovich’s great music that is the selling point here. Sure, the music is more easily accessible than his great symphonies and other stage works. But, the catchy songs that make up the score are filled with invention - folk music overtones and rapid dramatic changes in tone and color that are undeniably familiar to anyone who has heard the composer’s work before. Shostakovich knows how to make a common melody sound like so much more with a sardonic twist or subtle internal commentary, and this is one operetta with some bite to it. Artistic director and conductor Andreas Mitisek led a spirited and quite ribald performance from the thirteen member orchestra filled with horns and percussion in excess of the few strings.
Mitisek often wears multiple hats in the Long Beach Opera productions and considering how well they come off, it says a great deal about his talents. This time around, however, he passed the stage business baton to director Isabel Milenski and Set Designer Jian Jung to make sense of Cheryomushki
’s peculiarly dated storyline. The Russian constructivist look of the set was charming. However, I did feel that the economic limitations the company always faces, may have gotten the better of them this time around. The single set with its limited number of props left little to differentiate between scenes making it hard to understand what was going on at times. Vocally, it was a strong evening with new faces to the LBO fold. Valerie Vinzant sang Lidochka, a museum guide who hopes to move into one of the new high rise apartments with her father. She's a recent graduate of the Domingo-Thorton Young Artist Program at Los Angeles Opera and has made notable appearances with her bright, easy sound successfully around town including Musica Angelica's recent semi-staged version of Mozart's Zaide
. Vincent Chambers sang a solid Sergei, the chauffeur who falls for Liusia, a crafty construction worker. I was also taken with some of the LBO veterans as well, including the very amusing Suzan Hanson and Robin Buck who team up to play the villainous Vava and Barabashkin respectively in some of the comic highlights of the evening. And while a Soviet-style light comedy might not be everyone's musical cup of tea, Moscow, Cheryomushki
certainly stands up musically with its operetta kin and LBO made the most of its hummable melodies and familiar comic tropes.
Labels: Long Beach Opera