Operetta review: ‘Moscow, Cherry Town’ by Long Beach Opera
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Dmitri Shostakovich isn’t the first name that springs to mind when the conversation turns to musical comedy. In fact, it might be the last. But one of the Soviet composer’s lighter works, an operetta that premiered in 1959 called “Moscow, Cherry Town,” has been dusted off by Long Beach Opera to remind music lovers that there was more to Shostakovich than somber symphonies and dire string quartets.
Presented at the Center Theater in the Long Beach Performing Arts Center on Sunday, the production, which can be seen at the Irvine Barclay Theatre on Wednesday and Santa Monica’s Barnum Hall on Sunday, makes a better case for the enduring charm of Shostakovich’s score than it does for the freshness of the libretto by Soviet humorists Vladimir Mass and Mikhail Chervinsky. As theater this is mildly enjoyable hackwork, noteworthy mostly as a curious historical footnote.
What raises the level is the festive irony of Shostakovich’s music, with its biting commentary hidden behind a smiling facade. LBO artistic and general director Andreas Mitisek capably conducts a modest-sized orchestra through the varying shades of ebullience, from bright optimism to black comedy to some middle ground where communal laughter takes arms again a sea of despair.
The production may not conclusively resolve the debate over whether Shostakovich was a reluctant propagandist or a secret revolutionary, but “Moscow, Cherry Town” suggests that he learned how to make bold statements without infuriating party censors. International validation and Nikita Khrushchev’s “Soviet spring” reforms undoubtedly abetted his daring. But his wiliness, acquired by necessity, ensured that the blast of censure he received in Pravda decades earlier for his opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” wouldn’t happen again. The book, a carefully calibrated satire gussied up as a frenetic farce, concerns Khrushchev’s mass housing projects, those concrete behemoths that upgraded citizens’ living conditions while pummeling their aesthetic sense and nearly choking them to death with red tape. The waiting list for these apartments was long, and married couples, like the characters of Sasha (Andrew Fernando) and Masha (Peabody Southwell), were often forced to live apart until an appropriate residence could be secured.
Talk about the horror of state control. The piece has not one but two bureaucratic villains: Fyodor Drebednev (Roberto Perlas Gomez), who wields his considerable influence to get Vava (Suzan Hanson), his latest lover, a larger-than-regulation-size apartment in the complex known as Cheryomushki (named after the cherry trees that were planted as a kind of botanical amends to ugliness), and Barabashkin (Robin Buck), a lowly estate manager, who controls the keys to the units there and issues them out only when it advances his own interests.
Romance motors the plot along. Boris (John Atkins), an explosives expert, becomes smitten with Lidochka (Valerie Vinzant), a museum guide, who has just received word that an apartment is available for her and her father (Benito Galindo). When this unit is corruptly given to Vava instead, Boris schemes to have the place rightfully restored. But Liusia (Jamie Chamberlin), an earthy female construction worker adored by Sergei (Vincent Chambers), Drebednev’s wayward chauffeur, would rather find justice through collective action than chicanery, and so, in a blur of playwriting reason, she calls for the planting of a magic garden, complete with a bench that compels whoever sits on it to speak the truth.
Isabel Milenski’s direction hasn’t much luck sorting out this slapdash story, but she spirits the action with bounce and verve across Jian Jung’s constructivist set. You don’t have to close your eyes to enjoy this operetta, but you might want to dull your mind as your ears take in the lush, variegated sounds of Shostakovich’s consistently mood-elevating, intermittently pointed score, which has a knack for suggesting more than it’s allowed.
The singing, for the most part, is stronger than the characterizations, though Southwell, Vinzant, Gomez and Hanson offer colorfully complete performances. And, of course, it’s no surprise given the ideological context that the choral numbers are the most rousing.
When the residents deliver “The Cheryomushki Anthem,” with its fantasy of “municipal happiness” and dreams coming true “[i]n a thousand concrete rooms,” sarcasm shakes hands with humane comedy. (David Poutney’s English translation is right on the satiric money.) Shostakovich guides our sentiments in this compassionately critical direction. Too bad he left us only this one operetta. Had he kept at it, he could have also been the Soviet Sondheim.
‘Moscow, Cherry Town,’ Long Beach Opera. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Irvine Barclay Theatre, Irvine; 2 p.m. Sunday, Barnum Hall, Santa Monica. $25 to $110. (562) 432-5934 or www.longbeachopera.org. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.