WNO Youth Opera has been tasked with bringing this strange operetta by Shostakovich to life. First performed in 1959 near the end of a career that had twice seen him condemned by Soviet authorities as anti-proletarian, it was not a piece of which the composer was proud. But despite its shortcomings, it contains lots of joyful music and a plot of rumbustious fun that the cast makes the most of. It is above all an ensemble piece and this inventive production by Daisy Evans gives every member of the cast an opportunity to shine – the choreographed chorus work is great fun. And the singing is, of course, splendid.
The plot revolves around a group of people who want apartments in a new housing development, Cheryomushki (Cherry Town). Party boss Drebyednyetsov wants to ensure that he gets a flat that is twice as big as the others to impress his new wife, Vava, and so he conspires with the site manager to knock two flats together, thereby displacing Lidochka and her father, Semyon. The other tenants, including sundry couples in different romantic entanglements, band together to resist this corruption and eventually, with the aid of a magic bench in a magic garden, the boss and his accomplice are thwarted and all ends happily.
It was difficult to summarise that plot without loading it with exclamation marks! And it is difficult to imagine what Shostakovich thought of the libretto – but he knuckled down and wrote some wonderful music in various styles (including something that sounds a bit like an Onegin-style waltz). However, the “plot” does run out of steam at a number of points and the composer was reduced to some hackneyed stuff too. And though Evans invents lots of action, including some great visual jokes, it is not an operetta that deserves another revival soon. And though designer Loren Elstein has filled the stage with bright and eye-catching scenes, it might have benefited from being in smaller auditorium where the audience is closer to the action and the need for ‘enhancement’ of the voices for the dialogue was absent.
But that said, there are some very promising singing actors in the cast, which is mostly drawn from various music colleges. The WNO Youth Opera is a model of the sort of project that is essential if the UK is to foster the next generation of opera performers. So many of the singers shone in their moment in the limelight but I was particularly impressed by soprano Emily Rooke as Lucy, whose dilemma about Sergei – sung well by tenor Rhydian Jenkins – momentarily transcends the farce. And Mica Smith and Jared Michaud gave a fine ‘Laurel and Hardy’ touch to their roles as “baddies”.
The big number – as in all the best musicals – is reprised more than once. And the chorus – words by David Pountney – is worth quoting because it gives such a telling feeling for the piece as a whole. “Cheryomushki, Cheryomushki, remember your new address. In every room on every floor, municipal happiness”. Cherry Town is a flawed work but this production made the most of what was on offer.
- Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich
- Libretto: Vladimir Mass and Mikhail Chervinsky (translated by David Pountney)
- Director: Daisy Evans
- Conductor: Alice Farnham
- Photo credit: Craig Fuller
- Performers incl: Emily Rooke, Lowri Probert, Dafydd Allen, Rhydian Jenkins
- Venue: Millennium Centre, Cardiff
- Date: 9 October 2022 (two performances only)
- Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes
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