Chicago Opera Theater to open season with light-hearted Shostakovich operetta (no, really)

April 12, 2012
By Wynne Delacoma

Adrian Kramer (Sasha) and Emily Fons (Masha) rehearse a scene from Chicago Opera Theater's production of Shostakovich's "Moscow, Cheryomushki."

Brian Dickie is going out in style.

Since 1999 when he became general director of Chicago Opera Theater, the tall Brit with a keen eye and ear for emerging talent has offered Chicago opera lovers an enriching diet of works well outside the mainstream. Yes, there have been revelatory forays into Mozart led by conductor Jane Glover, music director of Music of the Baroque, and staged by director Diane Paulus.

But Dickie’s specialty has been early Baroque, Baroque and 20th-century opera. During the past 13 years, he has brought Chicago audiences exciting, updated productions of Monteverdi and Handel as well as haunting productions of such important contemporary pieces as Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice and John Adams’ Nixon in China.

His final season, which opens Saturday night at the Harris Theater, sums up Dickie’s approach. First up is a Shostakovich rarity and Chicago premiere: Moscow, Cheryomushki, running for four performances through April 25. A comic operetta from 1959, it follows a set of young couples trying to navigate the Soviet capital’s byzantine housing system and snag the apartments of their dreams in new buildings going up in Moscow’s Cheryomushki (Cherry Town) district. (The story is fiction, but Cheryomushki is an actual Moscow residential neighborhood filled with workers’ housing.)

Handel’s Teseo, the final installment in COT’s three-part series of operas based on the Medea myth, runs April 21-May 2. The season closes September 15-23 with a production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute conducted by Steuart Bedford and directed by Michael Gieleta.

Cheryomushki has been on Dickie’s radar for several years. Most audiences associate Shostakovich with the most serious forms of the classical repertoire—his 15 symphonies, 15 string quartets, and the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk–large-scale works often filled with evocations of deep human pain.

But the sarcastic wit so typical of Shostakovich had its lighter side. Operetta-style confections were once very popular in the Soviet Union, and Shostakovich’s Moscow, Cheryomushki found an appreciative audience.

Tastes changed in the 1960s, however, and Shostakovich’s operetta was forgotten for decades. Moscow, Cheryomushki began to resurface with the mid-1990s, thanks to a recording by Opera Pimlico, a small British opera company that presented the opera in 1995, and a CD made in Russia with conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky.

Brian Dickie

“It was done [in 2001] by Opera North in Leeds,” said Dickie. “The director there wrote me about it then, thinking it would be something for us to do as a co-production. It had been very much on my mind for quite a time because I knew how hugely successful it had been in Leeds.

“It’s very funny,” he said. “It’s almost a piece of American musical theater.”

Moscow, Cheryomushki marks a connection between COT and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Gerard McBurney, the CSO’s artistic programming advisor, is also an expert in Shostakovich’s music. He provided the reduced orchestration for Opera Pimlico’s ground-breaking production. COT will be using McBurney’s score in its new production conducted by Alexander Platt, COT resident conductor, and directed by Mike Donahue.

Gerard McBurney

“It was scored for huge orchestra,’’ said McBurney of Cheryomushki’s original 1959 production. “There were operetta theaters all over the Soviet Union at the time, and the operetta theaters in Moscow and the other big cities had huge orchestras. They were putting on things like The Merry Widow, all the Lehar and Viennese operettas. They were very, very popular. They did Gilbert and Sullivan and American musicals, but they did them with huge orchestras.”

Once Technicolor movies arrived in the Soviet Union, said McBurney, the audience’s appetite for live operetta diminished. (Moscow, Cheryomushki was transformed into a Soviet movie musical in 1963 and is available on DVD).

Approached by Opera Pimlico’s founder in the early 1990s, McBurney reduced Shostakovich’s full score to one for 15 musicians. With a smaller, more affordable orchestra, opera companies like COT that performed in more intimate spaces could now present Moscow, Cheryomushki.

As with most operettas, the libretto needed to be reworked for different eras and tastes. “There were English school-boy jokes,’’ said Dickie of the British productions. “I don’t think that travels well.” COT’s libretto is by playwright Meg Miroshnik.

At its heart, said McBurney, Moscow, Cheryomushki is a funny, touching tale of young people trying to launch their adult lives. It’s particularly relevant today, he noted, in an era when the economy is terrible, jobs are scarce and many young adults are reluctantly still living in their parents’ homes.

“It’s a very funny text,’’ said McBurney of the original libretto. “One of the great themes of the Khrushchev period is youth culture, young people who are saying ‘We’ve had enough.’ This, of course, is what Moscow, Cheryomushki is about. It’s young people who say, ‘We will not any more be told what to do. We will take control.’ That’s very moving.”

“The production team and I have been really taken by the lovely heart and spirit of the piece,” said Donahue, a young director based in New York City whose work ranges from experimental plays and musicals to opera.

“There’s a way to view this as really bitter, biting, sardonic satire, and there are definitely moments of that. But there’s a lovely, generous spirit in this idea that a group of people can actually hope that there is room for progress and change. And that if they work hard enough and they work together they can actually will that thing into being.”

Alexander Platt

As a real-life building project, Cheryomushki came to symbolize the worst kind of cheap, ugly Soviet worker housing. But, said Donahue, “at the time, Cheryomushki was a huge symbol of change and potential for progress.”

“The piece has this sort of wondrously dynamic, frenetic energy to it,’’ he said. “We’ve been joking that it’s been a bit more like doing a Broadway musical or a Hollywood rom-com than an opera by Shostakovich. It’s three young couples who are all trying to find their way through love and to apartments.”

“I’m a big Shostakovich fan,’’ said Platt, “but I’d never known this piece.” At one point, given his busy schedule as music director of four regional orchestras along with his post at COT, Platt considered bowing out of Moscow, Cheryomushki. “I couldn’t even pronounce this thing.”

But, he said, Dickie urged him to stay with the project, and Platt is now very happy that he did.

“It’s the perfect springtime operetta,” he said. “I’ve come to love it. This is Shostakovich’s escape. He did harbor a secret love of operetta and jazz and café music. It’s an absolutely charming work.”

Chicago Opera Theater presents Shostakovich’s Moscow, Cheryomushki April 14, 20, 22 and 25. Handel’s Teseo follows April 21, 27, 29 and May 2. 312-704-8414.

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