Tragedy Tomorrow, Commissars Tonight!
[Shostakovich: Moscow, Cherry Town
Long Beach Opera]
May 17, 2011
totalitarian, uniform, drab,
Little more space than a hermit crab:
Mid-20th Century Soviet Man!
-- with apologies to King Crimson
Nothing says "lighthearted romantic romp" quite like Khrushchev-era Soviet housing policy, eh?
As it happens, Moscow, Cherry Town [Moskva, Cheryomushki], which received its US West Coast premiere this past Sunday at Long Beach Opera, is that romp. It is as entertaining as St. Petersburg's white nights are long, sure to unite the proletariat and bourgeoisie in the common cause of a raucously spirited entertainment.
With a score by no less a luminary than Dmitri Shostakovich and a book by humorists Vladimir Mass and Mikhail Chervinsky (here in a salty translation by David Pountney), Moscow, Cherry Town premiered to great success in 1959, and spawned a 1961 film adaptation that for a time was to the USSR the sort of holiday television staple that "It's a Wonderful Life" is to the USA. It is an operetta rather than an opera, and aims first to entertain. As a case of a Serious Composer working within an ostensibly Popular framework, it is a logical entry in a tradition that can trace itself backward through Weill's Threepenny Opera to Mozart's little music-hall confection, The Magic Flute. There is, unsurprisingly, more of Weill than of Wolfie in Shostakovitch's score, which mashes hummable choruses with raucous jazzy outbursts and pastiches on any number of other styles and composers. Shostakovich's particular trick is to produce an enjoyable, jovial musical surface beneath which some part of the orchestra is constantly grinning, pointing and rolling its eyes.
With the death of Stalin and the rise of Khrushchev, Shostakovich had to some extent been brought in from the cultural cold by the time he composed Moscow, Cherry Town. While still a ruthless bunch, the Khrushchev regime was less bluntly murderous than its predecessor, and allowed for Shostakovich's "rehabilitation" and an accompanying modicum of creative range. At the same time, Khrushchev launched a major housing initiative in Moscow, seeking to replace existing collective housing with slightly less collective individual family apartments. The new buildings were resolutely uniform, typically five stories tall, built on largely identical plans with largely identical prefabricated concrete components. The slapdash construction and tiny size of the units somewhat offset the otherwise welcome gains in privacy and semi-personal space.
That tension between promise and reality, between the Workers' Paradise of the public relations apparatchiks and the mundane grubbiness of daily life, is a running theme in Moscow, Cherry Town. To present that theme, Mass and Chervinsky crafted a plot founded on that most eternal of comic tropes: power and greed brought low by cleverness, honesty and, of course, true love.
We meet Sasha and Masha, newly married but still obliged to live apart in gender-segregated State dormitories, dreaming of a place of their own so they can stop sneaking about the town to rendezvous. Sasha is a guide at the Museum of Moscow's Future, showing off Soviet living standards that are as grand as they are imaginary. His fellow guide, Lidochka—a musical heroine of the "Lovely, Smart, and Lonely" School—lives with her aging father in an aging hovel whose aging roof has just collapsed. Meanwhile, noble female construction worker Liusia, hard at work constructing the new housing units, is losing patience with her on again/off again beau, Sergei, who works as a chauffeur for local Party bosses. Rounding out the side of good is Boris, freshly returned from a State-mandated sojourn tending cattle in Siberia, now employed as a demolitionist, blowing up Moscow's aging buildings to make way for more "Khrushchev slums." As the story begins, Sasha and Masha and Lidochka and her father have received the news that they have been awarded coveted flats in the new Cheryomushki buildings. Boris, smitten with Lidochka, comes along to "help."
But the path to People's Housing ne'er did run smooth: the assigned Cheryomushki building is under the control of the corrupt manager Barabashkin, whose sole interest lies in currying favor and connections with the Party, or in getting a little something extra from prospective tenants. As it happens, Barabashkin has leagued himself with local party operative Drebednev, who is looking to impress his new arm-candy wife Vava by delivering her an extra-large apartment, to be created by knocking out the wall between his own unit and its neighbor. To that end, with a flick of the pencil Barabashkin declares that the unit assigned to Lidochka and her father "does not exist" and that, so far as he is concerned, neither do they.
In the end, of course, it all works out through good will, pluck, and the deus ex machina of a Magic Garden Bench—I'm not making this up, you know—sitting upon which one can only speak the truth. The right couples are joined in the right combinations, living for the Glorious Future in their respective flats, while Barabashkin and Drebednev are disciplined by the fickle Party and reduced to sweeping the courtyard.
Satire is what closes on Saturday night, and Moscow, Cherry Town would presumably have met that fate if it weren't so flat out entertaining. Every musical comedy trick in the book is trotted out, with songs for all the necessary beats. The chorus and characters sing of "Cheryomushki!" as if it were Oklahoma! Lidochka has an "I want" song, as every good ingenue role should, while her father sings nostalgically of his happy days in the hovel on Tyipyoli Lane. Liusia has really had enough of being stood up by Sergei, and complains that her love "means nothing." The villains revel in their villainy. There is even a dream-ballet (featuring those villains in pink tutus).
Although the story remains set in the late 1950's, LBO's production takes its visual cues from the Russian Constructivism of the earlier part of the century. A crane-like contraption dominates the stage, paying tribute to the likes of Tatlin and Rodchenko while holding aloft a Dziga Vertov-inspired eye. Is it the eye of the State, or a projection of the Audience? In the end, the eye becomes a magic clock, according to which Sergei is never ever late for his meetings with his forgiving sweetheart Liusia.
Under the inventive and energetic direction of Isabel Milenski, Long Beach Opera's cast of singing actors plays it all for all it is worth. As a musical comedy, Cherry Town gives each of its characters, and a chorus of their Moscow comrades, at least one moment to shine. Of the story's central couples, Boris and Lidochka receive the most attention. John Atkins' Boris is a raffish charmer, his eye out for the main chance, but sincerely smitten with Valerie Vinzant's Lidochka—as who would not be? Ms. Vinzant is at home with comic physicality, implying hidden depths beneath her character's straight-laced exterior: Lidochka never actually tosses aside her glasses and shakes out her hair, but she seems on the verge of doing so at any moment. That calculated gawkiness combined with a strong and beautiful singing voice is extremely winning, and reminds me again why Ms. Vinzant made a practically perfect Papagena in Los Angeles Opera's most recent Magic Flute.
Among the bad guys, Robin Buck's Barabashkin is the highlight, snarling with relish as he stands in the way of all those decent, hopeful Muscovites who only want the keys to their new homes. He is a cross between Snidely Whiplash and some Russian Mafia variant on a character out of Damon Runyon. Also, he manages to keep a straight face in a tutu.
Whether at the hands of Peters, Politburos, plutocrats or Putins, Russians have been put upon for centuries, and they have often concluded that the best response is a resigned, sardonic joke. Moscow, Cherry Town springs from that impulse. Moscow, Cherry Town may not set you free—for that, you need the truth, possibly with the help of a magic bench—but it is practically guaranteed to raise a smile and highly likely to provide some giggles, snorts and guffaws. Thanks are due (again) to Long Beach Opera for bringing an unsuspected musical gem out of obscurity.
There are two remaining performances, coming to a theater near you: Wednesday, May 18 at UC Irvine's Barclay Theater, and a matinee next Sunday, May 22, at Barnum Hall, Santa Monica. Details and tickets here.
Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, reproduced by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.