Chicago Opera Theater's season got off to a heart stopping start on Saturday, April 14. Fortunately, the cardiac arrest turned out to be primarily attributable to a smashing, ebullient opening night of Shostakovich's "Moscow, Cheryomushki" -- an opening night all the more remarkable for the fact that the pit was discovered to be unusable literally one hour before curtain, necessitating movement of the entire orchestra on to the stage, and who knows how much eleventh hour blocking and re-staging. But let us not dwell on hardships well and truly overcome.
Technically an operetta, "Moscow, Cheryomushki," is quite operatic in its thematic structure. The A, B, C, and D romantic plots intersect, run roughshod over one another, and pass in the night. Practical problems and fantastical solutions share the stage. The occasional wink and nod at the audience urges them to come along for the ride.
In this production, Meg Miroshnik has adapted the original libretto by Vladimir Mass and Mikhail Chervinsky into English for COT. For the most part, the adaptation works nicely: The language is approachable and conversational. Miroshnik's decision to honor the original rhyme scheme is handled well overall, avoiding torturous constructions in service of the goal. In a very few numbers, though, the lyrical phrasing demands strange and unfortunately attention-grabbing emphasis on the wrong syllable in English (the most problematic example is Boris's repeated declaration that he is "Window Shop-PING"), but the wins outnumber the losses by a lot.
In contrast to the operatic flavor of the text, Shostakovich's music, arranged here by Gerard McBurney for "dance band" (borrowed from Shostakovich's instrumentation for his "Jazz Suite No. 1," according to McBurney's program notes), is sparkling and modern. The orchestra does double duty as Foley artists and the musical episodes, which are often short and vary widely in tone and style, evoking the big, flashy musicals contemporary with the opera's first staging. The musicians, conducted by Alexander Platt, are no less than heroes for bringing Shostakovich's music fully to life, given the sub-ideal circumstances.
Straddling the line between the opera and operetta/musical columns is Shostakovich's inclusion of a genuine dream ballet. In general, COT's production leans heavily on (and benefits mightily from) Eric Sean Fogel's choreography and a wonderfully talented chorus and cast of dancers, not just in the ballet, but also throughout. (Not to fixate on the opening night shenanigans, but it seems wrong not to acknowledge the flawless execution of choreography that must have changed literally just hours before.)
COT's visual design almost never disappoints, and this is no exception. Anya Klepikov (Set and Costume Designer) renders the post-Stalin construction site in bright primary colors reflecting the emotional spectrum of the multiple love stories and the half-sincere, half-tongue-in-cheek political optimism of Moscow post-Stalin. Window frames and silk banners transform and disguise the floor-to-ceiling scaffolding, briskly shifting the scene from Cheryomushki itself to museums to the landscape in the review mirror of a commandeered limousine. Klepikov's costumes are a pleasing riot of vintage color and construction orange against this backdrop.
Although strong dramatic skills are necessary for any opera, the spoken dialogue in operetta/musicals places even more obvious and extensive demands on the cast's acting chops. Every single person in the cast is vocally superb. The acting was not quite as solid across the board, but no performance stood out as uniformly problematic.
I have to begin with Sophie Gordeladze, who plays Lusya, the crane opera and site forewoman. Her opening lines of dialogue are delivered from her crane, which sits flush with the high proscenium. Although I am often profoundly moved by opera, I'm not generally a weeper. Gordeladze's voice is so incredible, that tears threatened at her first notes.
Her acting and vocal work were simply superb. As her (eventual) paramour, Dominic Armstrong's voice is well matched, and his portrayal of Sergei as a frank, even-tempered pragmatist plays nicely opposite her bright-eyed avatar of the Collective Will that ultimately transforms Cheryomushki into a fantastical utopia where only truths can be spoken, and only calls from the heart can be connected.
As Boris, Paul LaRosa does much of the dramatic heavy lifting, and he's certainly equal to the task. He is charming, sly, and later proves himself to be almost alarmingly mobile in his big dance scene. Vocally, he has a warm, swoon-worthy baritone. Sara Heaton plays the sensible, dutiful daughter Lidochka.
The currently homeless Boris decides to seduce her on the strength of her soon-to-be private apartment in Cheryomushki. The character is necessarily the least fun, and Heaton's acting is not the strongest in the cast. However, her voice is lovely, and she did improve dramatically over the course of the show, ending by generating real chemistry with LaRosa, dramatically and vocally.
Like Heaton, Emily Fons (Masha), who displayed impressive acting chops in Lyric Opera's "Tales of Hoffman", starts out a bit shaky acting-wise. However, she quickly found her footing, thanks in large part to wonderful rapport with her partner in comedy, Adrian Kramer (Sasha). They spend the duration of the opera jumping each other or plotting to jump one another while still mustering the audience's sympathy for their sad, not-so-newly-wedded fate.
Matt Boehler is the production's undisputed master of physical comedy. As the villainous bureaucrat, he uses his tall lanky frame and powerful bass to full comedic advantage. As his physically hot, emotionally cold and calculating wife, Vava, Ashleigh Semkiw is not quite Boehler's match, but the role is small, so there's not much by which to judge. Paul Scholten and Paul Corona round out the cast with solid supporting performances, both comedically and vocally.
As COT announced in early April, this season is to be the last in Artistic Director Brian Dickie's impressive 13-year tenure. "Moscow, Cheryomushki" is his 23rd premiere, and it bodes well for Dickie exiting on a lovely high note.
"Moscow, Cheryomushki" runs through April 25 at Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, Chicago. For info or tickets call 312-704-8414 or visit http://ChicagoOperaTheater.org.