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22.12.04

Musical Comedy by Shostakovich?

Since the end of the Cold War, we have been learning more and more about "the real" Dmitri Shostakovich, much of it thanks to the work of musicologist Laurel Fay (see the class materials put together for Opera in the 20th Century). The latest thing I have learned about him came from this article (Une comédie musicale à la soviétique signée Chostakovitch, December 21) by Marie-Aude Roux for Le Monde. It is a review of a new production, by Macha Makeïeff and Jérôme Deschamps at the Opéra National de Lyon, of a musical comedy by Shostakovich, which I translate here (with added links):

Intentionally leaving behind things like the La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein [see my post from October 8], Véronique, and another joyous Widow, the Opéra de Lyon's ballsy holiday programming feat paid off with the French premiere of a musical comedy by Dmitri Shostakovich. From the same period as Bernstein's West Side Story, Moscow, Cheryomushki (Moscow: Cherry Tree Towers) was composed by the Russian composer in 1957–1958, under the friendly influence of the Moscow Operetta Theater conductor Grigori Stoliarov, who had directed Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in Moscow, before the opera, violently criticized in Pravda in January 1936, was finally withdrawn from the stage.

Usually thought of as a "serious" composer (15 symphonies and as many string quartets), Shostakovich never looked down on film music—he composed 37 film scores—jazz, or musical comedy. Between 1928 and 1933, the dates of Tahiti-Trot based on the famous Tea for Two by [Vincent] Youmans and the unfinished operetta The Big Lightning, he attempted to set a Mayakovsky comedy, The Bedbug (1929), and wrote music for the stage revue Hypothetically Murdered for the Leningrad Music Hall (1931).

"Boring, talentless, stupid" was how the composer first described Moscow: Cherry Tree Towers, in a letter, dated December 19, 1958, to his friend Isaac Glikman, before reconciling himself to the score that he revised in 1963 for a film adaptation by director Gerbert Rappaport. A popular success, the work takes place during the Kruschov years, in the heart of an urban revolution intended to solve the housing crisis. Old downtown neighborhoods, unhealthy suburbs, student and worker lodgings shelter the good and the bad of the proletarian masses who have come to take part in the industrial building of Stalinesque towns. Constructed according to the dogma of soberness, functionality, and rationality, the green spaces, public works, and apartment buildings of the Cherry Tree Towers neighborhood, in the southern suburb of Moscow, incarnate modernity and, in the era of space conquest, the communist utopia—at once the ideal life, the communitarian paradise, and a radiant future.

The three couples in love imagined by Vladimir Mass and Mikhail Chervinsky's libretto, in trouble with the corrupt apparatchiks (Chief Administrator Drebedniov and his follower, Concierge Barabachkine), sweep away the stereotypes of youth. From a boring young married couple, Sacha and Macha, to the Soviet couple, Sergei and Lioussia (she is an emancipated constructed worker, in keeping with the Soviet ideal), to Boris and Lidotchka, two backward-looking "intellectuals," at the whim of spiritualist and metaphysical moods.

Moscow: Cherry Tree Towers, Opéra National de Lyon, 2004, photo by Gérard AmsellemPerformed in the Russian original, except for French dialogue (translated and adapted with the help of the dramaturge Macha Zonina), Moscow: Cherry Tree Towers is interpreted with great freshness and verve by a cast of young singing actors, many of whom come from the famous Academy of the Mariinsky Theater, with the full Chorus and Orchestra of Lyon under the hedonistic direction of Alexander Lazarev. A poetic lightness and appropriate theatrical tone are found in the inventive, funny, and tender staging by Jérôme Deschamps and Macha Makeïeff. The latter takes credit for the very beautiful sets and costumes (the colored and "graffitiesque" decoration of the HLM [French public housing block] apartments, the Soviet costumes in utopian shades). But tragedy is mute under the concrete. With a laugh, a cry, a mimicry offered by the two excellent "Deschamps actors" (Lorella Cravotta and Robert Horn), all the silent horror of the totalitarian system suddenly rises up menacingly.
Performances remaining at the Opéra National de Lyon include December 23, 26, 28, 30, 31, and January 5. You can download the entire program for this performance (a rather large .PDF file) and look at this great gallery of images. This is a coproduction with the Opéra royal de Wallonie.

Although I didn't really take notice at the time, Francesca Zambello directed the American premiere of Moscow: Cherry Tree Towers this summer, at the 15th annual Bard Music Festival, this year dedicated to the theme Shostakovich and His World (August 12 to 15). Alex Ross was there for The New Yorker, and he mentioned the performance briefly in an article (Unauthorized, September 6).

UPDATE:
See also Bertrand Dermoncourt, Le temps des Cerises (L'Express, December 13); Jacques Doucelin, Le sourire forcé et critique de Chostakovitch (Le Figaro, December 21); and David Stevens, Shostakovich's revenge on Stalin (International Herald Tribune, December 25).

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