WNO Youth Opera – Shostakovich’s Cherry Town, Moscow – directed by Daisy Evans; conducted by Alice Farnham

Moskva, Cheryomushki – Operetta in three Acts to a libretto by Vladimir Mass and Mikhail Chervinsky [performed in an orchestration by Gerard McBurney; sung to an English translation by David Pountney with English and Welsh surtitles]

Lucy – Emily Rooke
Lidochka – Rusnė Tušlaitė
Masha – Lowri Probert
Vava – Morgana Warren-Jones
Boris – Dafydd Allen
Sergei – Rhydian Jenkins
Sasha – HoWang Yuen
Barabashkin – Jared Michaud
Drebyednyetsov – Mica Smith
Semyon – Tomos Owen Jones

Welsh National Opera Youth Opera Chorus

Welsh National Opera Orchestra
Alice Farnham

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 9 October, 2022
Venue: Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

Shostakovich didn’t think much of his only operetta Cherry Town, Moscow (1958) which satirises, in the somewhat more relaxed post-Stalin era, the process of providing new suburban housing for the population of Moscow (Cherry Town – or Cheryomushki in Russian – was one such new residential development, and still exists). Certainly it shows a different, lighter side to this composer which has rather been forgotten – at least by Western European audiences – more keen to probe his more troubled relationship with the Soviet regime. On the evidence of this lively production by WNO Youth Opera, it stands up well enough in performance as a musical comedy, showing the composer on easier terms with that changed political situation.

The operetta is a largely jazz-inspired work, and to that extent bears comparison with his Jazz Suites, though it also makes parodying reference to a range of styles and genres along the way, particularly ballet. Its jazzy idiom and satire make it comparable to Kurt Weill’s Weimar comedies or Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf, albeit responding to different political and social circumstances. But the subject of housing development, and bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption in its allocation in the Soviet system, prove as relevant to capitalist society today, as property and land remain unfairly distributed, and the market, property speculators, rentiers, and financial and legal frameworks working in favour of those already with the luck to own assets all collude to keep the young and less well-off increasingly locked out of ownership of affordable and habitable accommodation. David Pountney’s translation of the text generally avoids making any pointed comments targeting either contemporary Britain or Russia past or present, but the analogy is clear enough, especially in the observations about those who have connections getting better treatment.

Daisy Evans’s production keeps it within a Soviet context, though bringing it forwards to the 1980s when perestroika there, and Thatcherite and Reaganite economic reforms in the West made increasing numbers of people on either side of the Iron Curtain susceptible to the caprices of the free market, and she makes ironic reference to the Russian Communist Party’s media outlet Pravda (‘Truth’). The choreography also does justice to the slapstick and surreal elements of the dramatic scenario – Evans refers to Monty Python in her programme notes, again emphasising the absurd for its own sake, if not political satire explicitly.

Alice Farnham conducts the WNO Orchestra in a vivid rendition of the score, bringing out enthusiastically all its instrumental colour which does so much to portray and comment upon the action, belying Shostakovich’s own low opinion of his music. With minimal spoken dialogue between each number, they sustain an alert pace across the work, making it a convincing whole at the musical level, even if the text sometimes lacks detail in explaining who the characters are or their motivations. It helps, too, that the performers don’t lapse into overwrought or sententious declamation, as sometimes happens in the spoken passages of some musical comedies, such as Gilbert and Sullivan, which might suit the Victorian vein of that repertoire, but not this.

As signers, the cast are equally effective in realising the lyrical impulse of the musical numbers, rather than bringing to bear any overweening operatic dimension to them. With no lead personalities as such, but quite a large cast of characters with equal dramatic purpose, it’s almost counterproductive to single out some over others. But standing out among an excellent ensemble overall are Jared Michaud’s wide boy Barabashkin (the manager of the block of flats the others move into); Dafydd Allen’s lovesick, self-pitying Boris; and Mica Smith and Morgana Warren-Jones as the some-are-more-equal, self-important couple Drebyednyetsov and Vava, who knock through a wall of their flat to another to create a luxury apartment as apparently befits his status as a party bureaucratic. Emily Rooke is also a suitably sassy Lucy, fending off the attentions of Rhydian Jenkins’s eloquently sly Sergei. Eventually they find love together, along with Boris and Lidochka, in the work’s sentimental ending, where the tenants overcome their petty rivalries to create a magic garden to beautify their residence, and where they may all find emotional truth, as against the lies and propaganda of the world at large.

If not a radical critique, then, still less a call to revolutionary action, the work makes some apt points exuberantly, and this performance captures that winningly. The only pity is that the production is not being toured, as there would surely have been interested audiences for this rarity beyond Cardiff. Nevertheless, bravo to all involved.

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