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In the lead-up to Opera Gazet’s impending review of Victoria Opera’s production of Shostakovich’s Cheremushki (Черемушки), we thought it might be prudent to offer some insights into the work itself, and of the stated plans of VO’s creative team to offer up a modernised adaptation of this Soviet-era satirical operetta.
It goes without saying in this particular corner of the internet that modern-dress stagings of operas run the risk of enraging those whose preferences run to the traditional, and who thus actively resist the efforts of the industry’s supposed wunderkind to impose some kind of “interpretation” onto works that can more than adequately thrive on their own merits, sans embellishment. But it is also true that there exists a small body of work that encourages, if not demands, a certain amount of tinkering in order for their themes to shine as brightly as needed. Satirical works that speak to the issues of the day are a peculiar beast.
Almost every major opera in the repertoire is dated and culturally redundant in one way or another, and notwithstanding any broader universal relevance it may contain, a modern audience that finds itself removed from the cultural and political context of a given work’s creation might consider its assumptions, obsessions, and conclusions alien to much of today’s ways of thinking. In seeking to preserve, or rekindle, a given work’s perceived relevancy and import, directors and intendants will always be on the lookout for ways in which to address any shortcomings, perceived or actual, with ever more creative recalibrations of everything from staging to score. Some are more successful than others, and let’s be frank, a good many are redundant in and of themselves. But for all the failures to which we can point, the practice itself is not without function or merit.
Indeed, as I said, certain works are entirely dependent upon currency to function at all, and absent the prism of cultural immediacy, they run the risk of falling out of the repertoire completely, which is a crying shame if they retain virtues above and beyond that warrant their continued inclusion in the repertoire.
The improvised nature of Commedia dell’arte not only allows for, but has ultimately come to demand, as part of its default structure, absolutely up-to-the-minute cultural and political references, mocking and satirising events that are freshly ripped from the headlines. If you’re doing Commedia this month and you’re not doing lazzi about Gary Lineker’s tweet or Hugh Grant’s red carpet interview, you’re not really observing Commedia tradition.
My own production, as director, of a musical adaption of A Clockwork Orange 31 years ago happened, by pure chance, to fall directly on top of the Rodney King verdict and the L.A. riots. They were in full swing as our season was playing, and realising that references within the show were relevant to those events, I offered a minor text change to one of my actors: as Alex is being reprogrammed via the Lodovico Technique by Drs Branom and Brodsky, footage is shown to him (offstage) of race riots; Anthony Burgess’ script offered “London’s East End” as the location in which “black, brown, and white disaffected” are shown raging against the machine, but in light of real-world events, the line was changed to “South Central Los Angeles”, and the reaction was immediate and tangible.
The full title of Shostakovich’s operetta is Moscow, Cheremushki (Москва, Черемушки), and it was a direct, explicit response to the very specific reality of the housing crisis in Soviet Russia in the 1950s. Despite any other virtues it may possess, including its music, its cultural and historical specificity as satire and as drama creates a certain distance, and its continued presence in the repertoire requires a certain amount of adaptation for contemporary appreciation. No amount of Googling towards an abstract intellectual appreciation can possibly compete with the raw immediacy of tapping into a collective subconscious that crosses the footlights and makes the work as here and now as its audience.
Victorian Opera’s director for this production, Constantine Costi, has apparently made only minor changes to the text by Vladimir Mass and Mikhail Chervinsky (no credit has yet been offered for the English translation being used), and has renamed it Melbourne, Cheremushki. (Мельбурн, Черемушки, if you’re keen). With apparently very little tinkering, it appears as though he has managed to take a 1950s Soviet-era treatise on one incredibly specific housing crisis speak to the very current, very real housing crisis that is currently crippling Melbourne.
I cannot imagine that Shostakovich or his librettists would be overly grieved by a good faith attempt to illuminate the main theme of their work — the universality of greed and corruption — by changing up some of the specifics. If Costi and his team can offer Melbourne audiences real substance and insight into the social and economic realities of what is a very tangible, very immediate, and very painful present day reality for Melbourne in 2023, and not merely a glib, superficial social justice cosplay, then I suspect they’re doing more justice to Shostakovich than a more traditional, period production might.
But the proof is in the pudding. Goodness knows this critic has seen many a production fail to live up to the lofty claims of its advance press or its programme notes. Only time will tell. I’ll let you know.