Shostakovich on Stage – Moscow Cheryomushki

Moscow, Cheryomushki, Op.105 – Musical Comedy in three acts and five scenes

Alexander Petrovich Bubentsov, a happy Muscovite – Yevgeny Monchak
Mascha, his wife – Karina Cherpurnova
Semyon Semyonovich Baburov, an elderly Muscovite – Nikolai Kamensky
Lidochka, his daughter – Tatiana Pavlovskaya
Boris Koretsky, a homeless man – Alexei Safiulin
Sergei Glushkov, a chauffeur – Andrei Ilyushnikov
Lusya, a construction worker – Anastasia Belyaeva
Fyodor Mikhailovich Drebednyov, the head of administration – Pavel Shmulevich
Vava, his wife – Olga Savova
Afansy Ivanovich Barabashkin, a council official – Alexander Gerasimov

Chorus and Orchestra of the Mariinsky (Kirov) Theatre, St Petersburg
Valery Gergiev

Vasily Barkhatov – semi-staging

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 22 July, 2006
Venue: The Coliseum, London

The Mariinsky Theatre’s season of Shostakovich stage-works continued here with an outing for his ‘musical comedy’ “Moscow, Cheryomushki (1958). The only full-length theatre piece from his later years, this has received little credence in the West – for whom the idea of so high-profile a composer indulging his enjoyment of the operettas of Johann Strauss, Offenbach and even Lehár near the height of the Cold War’s first phase was at the very least perverse – though Pimlico Opera successfully mounted a reduced version in the mid-1990s, and Opera North gave a full staging (also in English) five years ago.

The Mariinsky provided an opportunity to see and hear the work from an ostensibly authentic perspective, though it cannot be pretended that the outcome was the success for which one might have hoped.

Five years before its 1959 premiere, the idea of an operetta overtly satirising the capital’s housing problem would not have been an option, and the sheer deftness with which Shostakovich puts across the broadsides of librettists Vladimir Mass and Mikhail Chervinsky is proof that the work is intended to be much more than anodyne entertainment. Similarly, the range of cross-references to Russian music of the past and ‘present’ may mean relatively little out of its immediate context, but it was undoubtedly intended to position “Moscow, Cheryomushki” within a tradition of provocative theatre that the composer had focussed on in an earlier stage of his career – for while the piece is unashamedly an operetta-cum-musical, it is far from a loosely assembled song-and-dance routine. The opening number recurs regularly as a refrain whose addressing of the audience alters in relation to its scenic context, while each of the main protagonists is identified with a recognisable theme that defines their character or predicament as might a ‘leitmotif’ in nineteenth-century opera. These give the work a unity able to sustain it across a full-evening duration and through the paraphernalia of a full staging.

Unfortunately, what emerged here left out at least half-an-hour of the complete show. While many of the numbers can be abbreviated without harming the musical continuity, the present performance went considerably further. Perhaps it was thought necessary given this was a semi-staging whose single set, of friezes that portrayed aspects of earlier Soviet life, was fine for the opening scene in the Museum for the History and Reconstruction of Moscow – but suggested little of the high-rise claustrophobia of the Cheryomushki housing estate where subsequent action takes place. Similarly, the few props of chairs and sleeping-bags amply evoked an administrative bureaucracy, but were inadequate for depicting the ‘magic garden’ where corrupt officials and intransigent lovers alike are forced to tell the truth in what, for contemporary Soviet audiences, must have seemed a telling update of the supernatural intervening in the realistic so beloved of an earlier era in Russian culture.

That the production was emasculated compared to what was offered by the full staging, with its apparently extensive use of ballet to visually enliven instrumental interludes (the ‘fantasy sequence’ prior to Act Three went for virtually nothing) and backdrop of footage from the 1961 “Cheryomushki” film version to provide an appropriate scenic context, is unfortunate – making one wonder whether the present compromise was decided upon for logistical or financial reasons, or a combination of the two.

The evening was saved, at least in part, by the sterling contribution of the singers – notably Tatiana Pavlovskaya as Lidochka, custodian at the museum who initially fights shy of and then embraces the possibility of love, and Alexei Safiulin as the hapless Boris whose tactless overtures to her belatedly succeed on account of their honesty. Almost as distinctive was the unlikeable duo of corrupt official Drebednyov and his hectoring wife Vava, whose attempts to deny the existence of the neighbouring flat so that they can enjoy increased living space is foiled by their own stupidity. Yevgeny Monchak and Karina Cherpurnova were well matched as the relatively carefree couple of Bubentsov and Mascha, and there were characterful assumptions from Nikolai Kamensky as the long-suffering Baburov and Anastasia Belyaeva as the public-minded Lusya. Alexander Gerasimov rightly made a buffoon out of the slow-witted official Barabashkin, while Andrei Ilyushnikov was agreeable as the blithe-spirited Sergei.

The Mariinsky Chorus and Orchestra sang and played with the requisite gusto, while Valery Gergiev ensured the sweeping expressiveness and driving vigour of Shostakovich’s resourceful ‘take-offs’ were fully projected. As a performance, the evening thus had a great deal going for it, but the lack of an adequate visual component meant that, on this occasion at least, “Moscow, Cheryomushki could not escape from the confines of the generic period-piece that it so subtly yet pointedly transcends.

  • Shostakovich on Stage continues until 29 July at The Coliseum, London (details through ENO link, below)
  • English National Opera

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