Chicago Opera Theater conjures up 'Moscow' on the Millennium
By Andrew Patner
Little in either the biography or most photographs of Soviet-era composer Dmitri Shostakovich shouts out, "Let's put on a show!"
However, like many Russians, the often dour artist, who died in 1975 at 68 after years of broken health, was a man of many parts. Among his prolific output of more than 200 works, many of them powerful and tragic symphonies, string quartets, concertos and song settings, there were also lighter pieces, some inspired by or written for film and theater. Weekly visits to local music halls and musical theater houses helped keep his nervousness and well-earned fear of political and personal persecution somewhat at bay.
In 1958, with two prominent satirists, he wrote "Moscow, Cheryomushki," his own musical comedy about workers hoping for flats in a new, cheap public housing development. It's "Good Times" meets "Avenue Q" meets Rodgers & Hammerstein and The Communist Manifesto, "We're Living It" edition.
"This is an exuberant example of a serious composer at the top of his game making a wholly enticing diversion out of his artistic vice of musical comedy," said Chicago Opera Theater resident conductor Alexander Platt, who will be conducting COT's new production of "Moscow, Cheryomushki" in the work's local premiere, beginning April 14 at the Harris Theater. Starting in 2001, Platt, who now heads orchestras in Wisconsin, Indiana and North Dakota while remaining based in Chicago, led some of COT's greatest achievements, including Kurka's "The Good Soldier Schweik," Britten's "Death in Venice" and John Adams' "Nixon in China."
"It's a dense and complicated score; this is Shostakovich. But even if you did not have the hilarious goings-on on stage, the incredible design - a sort of Khrushchev-era ‘Mad Men' - and these wholly appealing young singing actors, the humor and sheer wackiness of the music comes out through the score itself," he said. "It just jumps out of the jazz band/chamber orchestra of 14 we'll have in the pit."
This reduced scoring, presented here in two acts totaling about 2 hours and 45 minutes (including an intermission), is the work of Shostakovich expert Gerard McBurney, who doubles as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's artistic programming adviser and "Beyond the Score" creator.
"Gerard gets every reference - whether it's Borodin or Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich's own hugely popular Fifth Symphony, or the soundtrack and style of ‘Jolly Fellows,' a smash 1934 Soviet musical comedy film, if you can imagine," Platt said. "And his arrangement not only allows this piece to be presented in theaters, it also takes it closer to much of the source material and the hapless-seeming characters onstage."
This musical version was created in the 1990s for the small and unusual British Pimlico Opera. For the staging, general director Brian Dickie, launching his last COT season with his 23rd Chicago premiere, commissioned a young team of director, translator/adaptor, designers and choreographer to give the work a fresh feel and also to get away from some of the weightier ways it has been produced.
"This is not Brecht," Platt said. "And it's not dark like ‘The Threepenny Opera.' Of course there are darker aspects - people struggling to make ends meet and find a place to live in a hopeless, tottering system. [A district in Moscow, Cheryomushki translates as "bird-cherry trees."] But everyone in the initial audiences in Moscow already knew all of that. Shostakovich was giving them a way to laugh at their situation."
The ensemble cast is studded with top young members and alumni of Lyric Opera of Chicago's Ryan Center. Mezzo Emily Fons plays museum guide Sasha, whose husband, Masha, is sung by baritone Adrian Kramer, from the Canadian Opera Company's program. Their two characters dream of actually being able to live together in their own room. Tenor Paul LaRosa and baritone Paul Scholten, who play more sinister figures, are joined by bass Paul Corona as the payoff-expecting building super, Barabashkin.
Returning performers include bass Matt Boehler (a chilling and hilarious Leporello in COT's 2008 "Don Giovanni") and soprano Sarah Heaton from last year's "Death and the Powers: The Robots' Opera." Three other singers bow, with the whole cast selected by talent-spotter Dickie.
COT and Lyric stalwarts chorus master Errol Girdlestone, choreographer Eric Sean Fogel and lighting designer Julian Pike will round out the team of emerging director Mike Donahue, librettist Meg Miroshnik and set/costume designer Anya Klepikov.
Immediately after stepping outside himself with "Cheryomushki," the 53-year-old Shostakovich orchestrated/completed Mussorgsky's great, dark opera "Khovanshchina," wrote his central seventh and eighth quartets, and, a year or so later, his 13th symphony, "Babi Yar," his most stinging criticism of the Soviet Union and of anti-Semitism. Those are different worlds from this work, which is more akin perhaps to Shostakovich's 1927 "Tahiti Trot," his own version of "Tea for Two" from that gravely political and oh-so-socially conscious American musical "No, No, Nannette."
At last, thanks to COT, Shostakovich's cherry trees will finally bloom in Chicago.
Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7)