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Opera Review (LA): Moscow, Cherry Town by Shostakovich at Barnum Hall in Santa Monica

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If you want more traditional opera you go to Los Angeles Opera (the exception would be their recent Ring) but if you want adventure, daring and courageous choices you would choose the Long Beach Opera. The spring selection of Moscow, Cherry Town is no exception. It is a sort of musical comedy composed by Shostakovich, one of the foremost composers of the 20th century. Shostakovich called Moscow Cherry Town an operetta but no matter what you consider it, it certainly is an oddity. Despite being deeply affected by Russian politics (he was denounced by Stalin twice), he was quite prolific composing 15 symphonies, six operas, film and ballet music, and numerous compositions in a variety of genres. Following Stalin’s death and the rise of Khrushchev, the composer met more lenient times and as a result wrote this tuneful satire about Khrushchev’s vision of a new Soviet society.

Khrushchev declared that everyone in Soviet Russia should have a place to live. Before this the majority of Russians lived in wooden shacks. Khrushchev had built a mass of cheap houses that turned out to be very small but had a tiny kitchen, balconies, separate toilets and bathrooms as well as soundproof walls. Compared to what the populace had before, this was heaven. Shostakovich wanted to make fun of the bureaucracy involved in getting one of these flats and also to point out corruption in the system. Much of Soviet art of the period used the construction of these rapidly constructed buildings with no elevators or garbage chutes as a source of inspiration. This probably explains how Shostakovich got away with this opera. He thought of it as a comic piece, and for an American audience, the laughs are certainly mitigated by the suffering of the characters as they tried to get one of these apartments.

The production in Lon Beach was very professional under the baton of maestro Andreas Mitisek and the direction of Isabel Milenski, Many of the singers were vets but they used some new performers as well. Robin Buck was outstanding as the estate manager as was Roberto Perlas Gomez and the corrupt bureaucrat who was trying to jump to the head of the line so his mistress could get a double apartment. Suzan Hanson was amusing as his slinky lover. The scenic design was simple but affective consisting of a crane, a giant arrow which pointed to the estates, and a platform which served as an apartment as well as a speaking platform. Jian Jung was the set designer. Leah Piehl provided the appropriate costumes. D.M Wood was the lighting designer, but I saw the show in Santa Monica at a school auditorium which didn’t have much flexibility in terms of lighting choices so the principals were often out of the light. Moscow, Cherry Town played on May 15th, 18th, and 22 at three separate locations, Center Theatre in Long Beach, Irvine Barclay Theatre, and Barnum Hall in Santa Monica.

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