April 20, 2012

Chicago Opera Theater puts on intimate Shostakovitch revival

The closest analogues to Dmitri Shostakovich’s delightful 1958 operetta Moscow, Cheryomushki are the American musical and the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. None of the heavy, brooding music of the D minor symphony for which the composer may justifiably be most famous is to be found in this breezy score. The trope that sticks out most clearly to any audience other than the original 1950s USSR is the continual ascription of any and all good fortune to a vaguely supernatural “collective will.” Aside from this cultural anomaly, it is very much about young people and their pursuit of love—a premise sans shelf life, it seems.

The opera is set at a construction site in the Moscow suburb of Cheryomushki just as work on a new apartment building is finishing. The protagonists must navigate soft Soviet corruption to receive their allocated apartments, which are temporarily commandeered by a bureaucrat’s mistress.

The evening’s orchestra was, due to technical failures of the orchestra pit’s elevator, not in the pit but onstage, behind the main action and the main set, with two rather skeletal towers of scaffolding standing in for the apartment complex. Despite such technical problems and a weak text, the singers acted their parts with ingenious panache. The audience was smitten with the production and gave a lengthy ovation.

Chicago Opera Theater (COT) has translated the entire opera into English, which given the heavy presence of dialogue and potential for accessibility, has become the norm in the United States. The largest musical difference between this production and the original is the size of the orchestra, which has been scaled down drastically from Shostakovich’s original: an enormous display of Soviet grandiosity that enables the frequent chorus of “Cheryomushki, Cheryomushki!” to double (one presumes) as a national anthem. It’s a testament to Shostakovich, of course, that the music still fared well in its new form. Rescored for a chamber orchestra of 14 instrumentalists, it gained in intimacy whatever was lost in pomp.

Mike Donahue’s direction and Eric Sean Fogel’s choreography were tightly integrated and very effective, making up for some of the weaknesses of Meg Miroshnik’s stilted, rather artificial translation. The faults are not wholly Miroshnik’s—the opera’s premise itself suffers from thinness, and the libretto could perhaps have benefited from a good editor—but the satire that could have made the work pop was distant, muted, and ineffectual. The ballet sequence in the second act was perhaps the most memorable moment of direction, though punctuated by yet another technical failure—a backdrop failing to unfurl down the length of one of the scaffolds, such that a stagehand was needed to free it.

The sets followed a less-is-more philosophy, reusing pieces from one scene to the next in an assortment of iterations, especially by changing signage. The magic garden with which the opera concluded, for example, featured flowers of variously colored tarpaulin that were affixed to previously seen objects.

The actors (one is tempted to call them actors that can sing rather than singers that can act on account of the rarity of good acting in opera, though this is not in the least meant to impugn the strength of their universally solid vocal performances) executed their roles well, one-sided though many of them were. That none of the characters, aside perhaps from Boris, had an emotional arc capable of evoking verisimilitude is certainly not the fault of COT, though it could have been more careful in hiring a translator. The production focuses more on the youthful and idealistic aspects of the opera than on the subtle points of satire that Shostakovich includes and, despite its few shortcomings, has plenty of virtues to recommend itself.