I cannot remember when I laughed so much in an opera house as during Moscow, Cheryomushki on Saturday night. My companion for the evening had a smile on her face from the first note to the last and hers was by no means the only happy face in the auditorium. ‘Cheryomushki’ (which translates as ‘Little Cherry Trees’) is the name given to the newly-built high-rise estate around which the plot of this delightful operetta centres.
Such tower blocks were indeed constructed in 1950s Moscow, so librettists Vladimir Mass and Mikhail Chervinsky drew from reality when they described the difficulties of acquiring a flat in Cheryomushki. Indeed, in this operetta I recognised the longing (for such a flat), the complications and the corruption which was often present in official departments – from my youth in Budapest.
The beauty of this piece is that it incorporates harsh reality with exquisite humour. Shostakovich’s score is both a parody as well as a tribute to composers of light music such as Offenbach, but also to popular and traditional Russian music. Shostakovich also uses some of his earlier popular melodies. His audience at the 1959 Moscow premiere would have been likely to know many of the melodies and I heard several people humming some of the tunes during the performance Saturday night.
The performance was designated as semi-staged but I felt that I witnessed a fully staged performance. Admittedly the scenery was sparse but it was imaginative and well utilised. For instance, we had some large screens showing photographs of groups of people; the screens were transparent so when the small (but excellent) chorus stood behind these screens we had the impression of larger crowds.
Sadly, several of the artists sang out of tune. However, we were treated to first-class performances by some of the other singers in the cast. Tatiana Pavlovskaya (performing the role of Lidochka) was superb both as a singer and an actress. We had a brilliant characterisation of Vava (specified as ‘the important person’s wife’) by Olga Savova. Nikolai Kamensky‘s rendering of the folksonglike Tyopli Lane was particularly beautiful. Alexander Gerasimov (Barabashkin, a council official) and Pavel Shmulevich (Drebednyov, an important person) excelled throughout, but their hilarious comic duet – for two bass singers – was one of the highlights of the evening.
The orchestra was excellent. We had lovely violin solos as well as rock-solid horn passages, plus spot-on brass playing (for instance in the tenor aria Come to Marina Roshka). In some particularly humorous moments the orchestra managed to portray the sound of laughing!
Conductor Valery Gergiev astonished me. He treated this operetta score with his customary full focus on all phrasing and polyphonic details. He also communicated every bit of humour and parody in the score without becoming vulgar. In other words, it turned out that Maestro Gergiev was a flesh and blood man with an enormous sense of humour.
With Shostakovich’s approval, in 1962 Cheryomushki was turned into a film. It will be shown in the Barbican on 5 December 2006; I am certain to attend the screening.