Romping room for Shostakovich


Perhaps more than any other composer, Dmitri Shostakovich is rooted in his time and place. He was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1906, and his life and career paralleled the history of the Soviet Union, which variously celebrated and pressured him until his death in 1975. His music reflects the turmoil of his personal story and the difficult times in which he lived, especially World War II — or as Russians call it, the Great Patriotic War.

Even now, decades after his death, Shostakovich’s scores remain primarily associated with either grim historicity (exemplified by his “Leningrad,” “The Year 1905” and “Babi-Yar” symphonies) or secreted subversiveness (suggested in his Fifth Symphony and First Cello Concerto). In photographs, he is generally seen unsmiling, just as he was on a now-famous 1942 Time magazine cover, in which he was sketched in profile as a resolute fire warden.

So what, then, is one to make of “Moskva, Cheryomushki” (usually translated into English as “Moscow, Cherry Town”), the composer’s sole operetta — or musical, as some authorities prefer? Rarely performed, the 1958 effort is to receive its West Coast premiere May 15 in the penultimate production of Long Beach Opera’s current season. The short run, split among three venues, concludes May 22. (Coincidentally, the work will debut in the Midwest next year, opening Chicago Opera Theater’s season in April.)


Long Beach Opera’s decision to mount this unusual work originated with its artistic and general director, Andreas Mitisek, who is also conducting. “This is the company’s first Shostakovich,” said Isabel Milenski, the director of the production, her seventh for the company. “Andreas said he wanted a wild romp, and I assured him I could give him one.”

Strange as that may sound to those who know Shostakovich’s more sober music, a romp is just the ticket for “Cherry Town,” which is set in a Moscow housing project erected during the Khrushchev thaw — that is, the period following Stalin’s death when relative liberalization temporarily occurred in the Soviet Union. (Cheryomushki are bird cherry trees, and the work’s evocative name refers to the district in Moscow where the project is located.)

“One of the reasons ‘Cheryomushki’ never made it over [here] is that it’s a very Soviet piece,” said Gerard McBurney, a composer and musicologist specializing in Russian music, whose orchestration of the work for reduced ensemble will be used in Long Beach. “It has an outrageous text by Vladimir Mass and Mikhail Chervinsky, who were popular comic writers for TV and films. And the piece is full of parodies, with sendups of music by Mussorgsky and Borodin and lots of jokes about ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and other works by Tchaikovsky.”

The idea for such a piece, which tells the story of a group of young Muscovites who must fight corruption to move into one of Cheryomushki’s new apartments, was proposed by the Moscow Operetta Theater, whose chief conductor was an old friend of the composer’s. Though the genre was new to Shostakovich, there was nothing tentative in his approach. “It’s like he’s opened all the Champagne bottles in his cellar,” McBurney said. “There are tons of parodies of Soviet pop songs. The most famous is of ‘Moscow Nights,’ whose first eight notes were Moscow Radio’s signal call.”

Shostakovich’s own feelings about the work seem conflicted. The fact that he never wrote another piece like it suggests a lack of sympathy with the form. But in its day it was a popular success and even spawned a film version for which the composer wrote additional music. That adaptation, which was released theatrically in the U.S. in 1964 as “Song Over Moscow,” is available on DVD from Decca, its original title restored.

The stage version is said to be more biting than its cinematic sibling, and that is what audiences will get with Long Beach Opera’s production. Though Milenski watched the movie as research, she maintains that she had to block out much of what she saw. “You want to start fresh,” she said.


Milenski did not know “Cherry Town” — which will be sung in David Pountney’s English translation, rather than in the original Russian — before being asked to direct it, but the work quickly engaged her. “Once you start getting into the language of Shostakovich, you start realizing how blatant he is in his sarcasm, but also how much musical writing there is under the radar,” she said. “The way he juxtaposes militarism or celebration, yet on the other hand it’s really a parody. He’s a master at that. He’ll go from a bombastic march to a dirge in no time. This is what I feel is so powerful and honest about his writing — the way he yanks you around emotionally and sets power against quiet human drama. You get deep nostalgic feelings and deep tragedy. And he’s doing all this in an operetta!”

To design the production, Milenski enlisted Jian Jung, with whom she has worked on several operas. Jung took awhile to come around. “At first it didn’t sound like Shostakovich,” she said. “It seemed a little messy. But then I began to like it a lot. It’s so entertaining. And once you know the context, it becomes really interesting.”

Jung drew inspiration by delving into the Soviet past, especially the work of the constructivist artist Alexander Rodchenko. She suggests that those expecting an operetta set in a housing project to be visually unappealing are in for a surprise.

“It’s not all in a housing development,” she said. “The characters talk about Moscow past, present and future, which they describe as a paradise. It’s really about ideals and what people dream about and then reality and what they go through in real life. So I wanted to show both grim reality and the ideals of these characters, which they truly believe could be achieved. I wanted to show Shostakovich looking at grim reality, but from cartoonish point of view. The characters are making fun of things yet still dreaming of ideal world.”