Long Beach Opera presents a Shostakovich musical comedy: “Moscow, Cherry Town”


"Moscow, Cherry Town" by Dmitri Shostakovich [West Coast Premiere]

Long Beach Opera

Review by David Gregson, Monday, May 16

Anyone with a fondness for the music of Dmitri Shostakovich knows that the composer had an irrepressible sense of humor. It burst out in his serious symphonies, chamber music and his operas. "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" may be a tragedy, but many parts of the opera are simultaneously hilarious and grotesque. "The Nose" presses the envelope of the ridiculous, and elsewhere his "pure" music is capable of a virtually unique and immediately recognizable form of sarcasm. It is no huge surprise, then, to discover that Shostakovich wrote a satirical operetta — a musical comedy or music hall revue, really — that became quite popular in the Soviet Union and was even made into a film ("Cheryomushki": 1963) which used to be shown on Soviet TV around the year-end holidays.

What is a surprise, of course — and a delightful one at that — is getting a chance to actually experience this rarity right here in Southern California. The brilliant stage director Francesca Zambello staged it at Bard College back in 2004 — and now we are fortunate to get director Isabel Milenski’s take on it courtesy of the Long Beach Opera. The work will resurface in some form or other in Chicago next year with the Chicago Opera Theater, but anyone wishing to see and hear this little gem in its current incarnation better jump now at the opportunity. It kicked off Sunday at the Center Theater in Long Beach. Now it travels to Irvine Barclay Theatre, Irvine (Wednesday, May 18, – 7:30 p.m.) and then to Barnum Hall, Santa Monica (Sunday, May 22, at 2:00 p.m.).

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It is difficult to summarize the story adequately and nothing is more impossible to follow than an opera plot synopsis, but for those who need a sketchy overview, this link may suffice. Indeed, almost anything you need to know is there at that site somewhere. But in a nutshell, Cherry Town is a new public housing project containing depressingly small cubicles, although they are also supposed to represent a leap into a brighter future.

The story deals with Sasha and Masha (bass-baritone Andrew Fernando and mezzo-soprano soprano Peabody Southwell), two newlyweds looking for a place to at long last live together; and with a variety of other characters who are also, for various reasons, looking to the new cramped and austere Cheryomushki estates for shelter. They include Lidochka, a museum guide (soprano Valerie Vinzant); her father, Semyon Semyonovich (baritone Benito Galindo); Boris, an explosives expert with an eye for Lidochka (tenor John Atkins); Boris’s chauffeur pal, Sergei (tenor Vincent Chambers); and Luisa, Sergei’s sometime squeeze (soprano Jamie Chamberlin).

Conflict arises from the corrupt estate manager, Barabashkin (baritone Robin Buck) who literally and figuratively holds the keys to everyone else’s domestic comfort; and from the petty bureaucrat Fyodor Drebednev (baritone Roberto Perlas Gomez) and his flashy-dressing lover, Vava (soprano Suzan Hanson) who together hope to take two units, knock out the wall and live in decadent luxury there. Well, all is relative. The only pathetic joy to be obtained in this generally sterile atmosphere will come from the people’s own landscaping effort — the source of the name Cherry Town.

The cast is brilliant. These singers do everything. The dance routines were worked out by choreographer Tanya Kane-Parry who has a keen eye for parody. Two men in ballet drag doing "Swan Lake" is an old joke, but thanks to Kane-Parry (and Gomez and Buck), it’s pretty hilarious in this show. And so is the Russian "rock ‘n’ roll" number (Vinzant and Atkins). The constructivist-pastiche sets, as my friend Charlene and/or Brenda has said, are genius. I kept thinking of the label on a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka. The costumes of designer Leah Piel were a delight, and special kudos go to the lighting director, D.M. Wood, who somehow has to be equally as brilliant in two more venues most probably quite unlike the Center Theater.

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The show is a curiosity, to be sure. It’s rather specific to its time and place and lacks much feeling of universality. One almost has to live in a communal political system to sympathize fully — and yet housing today is still a problem, and there are still people desperate for a room of their own. And I recall one successful and hilarious American film, "The More the Merrier" (Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, Charles Coburn: 1943) about a Washington housing shortage in which a woman and two men have to share a room together.

The piece is not without giddy bits of pure fantasy. There is a bench which, when sat upon, causes people to speak nothing but the truth. And "Cherry Town" is not without propaganda, either — for at the end one feels the basic goodness of the Russian people will prevail despite all adversity. Shostakovich seems to revel in the ambiguity. Protest or propaganda?

For this show, LBO’s artistic and general director, Andreas Mitisek, conducts a 13-instrument version of the work in Gerard McBurney’s deft arrangement of the original score. The English translation, which evokes both Bertolt Brecht and W.S. Gilbert, is by David Pountney. A cast of 18 talented young performers sing and dance their way through the entire thing. Somehow the cumulative effect, although the music is clearly by Shostakovich, is quite like watching and listening to one of the many Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht collaborations. And yet, the libretto by Vladimir Mass and Mikhail Chervinsky, possesses little of the didactic, socially corrective content of a "Seven Deadly Sins" or "The Threepenny Opera" or "Mahagonny." At the same time, the book is so packed with pointed criticism of Soviet era corruption, one wonders how it passed the censors of that era.

And yes — it’s a very tuneful score drawing on all sorts of popular and folk song forms. Every song has a direct and immediate appeal.

LBO seems to be becoming a sort of repertory company. So many of the singers have appeared regularly — and one is always happy to enjoy the likes of soprano Suzan Hanson, baritone Roberto Perlas Gomez, soprano Peabody Southwell, and baritone Benito Galindo. They all help form what is a virtually perfect cast for this little musical romp though the ’50s high-rise concrete housing estates on the outskirts of Moscow.

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Sasha, museum guide – Andrew Fernando

Masha, Sasha’s wife – Peabody Southwell

Lidochka, museum guide – Valerie Vinzant

Semyon Semyonovich, Lidochka’s father – Benito Galindo

Boris, explosives expert – John Atkins

Sergei, chauffeur – Vincent Chambers

Liusia, construction worker – Jamie Chamberlin

Fyodor Drebednev, a bureaucrat – Roberto Perlas Gomez

Vava, lover of Drebednev – Suzan Hanson

Barabashkin, estate manager – Robin Buck

Conductor – Andreas Mitisek

Director – Isabel Milenski

Choreographer – Tanya Kane-Parry

Scenic Design – Jian Jung

Costume Design – Leah Piehl

Light Design – D.M. Wood

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Performances

Sun. May 15, 2011 – 2:00 p. m. (Center Theater, Long Beach)

Wed. May 18, 2011 – 7:30 p.m. (Irvine Barclay, Irvine)

Sun. May 22, 2011 – 2:30 p. m. (Barnum Hall, Santa Monica)

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