Concert, DVD, Film & Theatre Reviews 28

27_Cheryomushki /

Cheryomushki (Cherry Town)
Original 1963 film of the Soviet musical.
Lenfilm production, directed by Gerbert Rappaport.
Libretto and screenplay by Vladimir Mass and Mikhail Chervinsky.
Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Nikolai Rabinovich.
Decca DVD 073 3138 2. TT 87’.
Aspect Ratio: 4:3; Colour; Region Code 1–6(0); Audio: LPCM Enhanced Mono.
Subtitles: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Chinese.

A red sticker on the front of the DVD box proudly declares that this newly-restored film print of Cheryomushki is the first DVD release, the first ever release outside Russia, and ‘Shostakovich’s tuneful “Broadway” musical.’ It certainly is bursting with tunes (some would say interminably so), but Shostakovich’s musical comedy belongs to the more old-fashioned traditions of Soviet operetta, whose musical roots lay in late 19th-century European operetta and the works of composers such as Offenbach, Johann Strauss, Kalman and Lehár. If you don’t like waltzes or Gilbert & Sullivan patter songs, then this is not for you!

Opinions on the stage version (Moskva, Cheryomushki, opus 105) tend to be polarised: while some dismiss it as officially-sanctioned mass entertainment dashed off by Shostakovich in ‘dutiful bureaucrat’ mode, others find the score both lyrical and satirical in equal measure, revelling in its various parodies, self-quotations and sundry borrowings. Those in the latter camp eager for more details would enjoy the fascinating chapter by Gerard McBurney – that great champion of Shostakovich’s lesser known works for musical theatre – entitled ‘Fried Chicken in the Bird-Cherry Trees’, in Shostakovich and His World (ed. Laurel Fay; Princeton University Press, 2004: p 227–73). Shostakovich’s published platitudes about the stage version and its premiere in January 1959 have been used as evidence of his true distaste for the project, but fans of this musical comedy can enjoy this DVD release, secure in the knowledge – according to Isaac Glikman – that Shostakovich liked the film version.

The original librettists, the popular satirists Vladimir Mass and Mikhail Chervinsky, are credited for writing the screenplay, but Glikman, in his role as consulting editor on the film, was largely responsible for its drastic overhaul, making extensive cuts to the dialogue and revising the scene order. Such a radical reworking coupled with the freedom of location shooting had an entirely positive effect, achieving greater dramatic coherence within a shorter time span – the film is about an hour shorter than the stage version.

The basic plot about three young couples and their quest to secure apartments in the almost-finished ‘Cherry Town’ estate remains the same, but whereas the stage version is set in the original Cheryomushki housing estate to the south-west of Moscow, the setting in the film is intentionally non-specific, presumably increasing its appeal to a wider Soviet audience. Both Decca in their publicity blurb (on the DVD box and online) and Andrew Huth in his booklet essay make frequent references to Moscow (including the naming of DVD scene 7 as ‘A spin round Moscow’), but these all stem from the stage version and not the film. Similarly, the American cinema release of Cheryomushki in 1964 was misleadingly entitled Song over Moscow. The first outward sign of the anonymous setting in Cheryomushki is the removal of ‘Moscow’ from the title. More importantly, just after the opening credits there is the following conversation heard in voice-over: ‘Cheryomushki … / Ah, yes, a village near Moscow. / That was a village. Today thousands of Muscovites live here. In the middle of an old town … grew a new town. / Do you mean Moscow? / No. Today new towns are built in every old town. And everywhere they are lovingly coined “Cheryomushki”. Here is one of these old towns …’. Thereafter there are no textual references to Moscow; even the line ‘So, we’ll meet tomorrow / Near the Bolshoi Theatre’ in Masha and Sasha’s first duet is changed to ‘So, we’ll meet tomorrow / at 6 o’clock sharp at the theatre’.

Naturally the revamped screenplay necessitated changes to the score, both cuts and a few new items. A brief comparison reveals that the main casualties were some of the numerous reprises (even the title song is not as all-pervasive in the film) and some songs sung by minor characters. Vava and Baburov have virtually no singing in the film and both Barabashkin and the chorus have significantly less to sing. For example, the opening chorus – sung by a group of Cheryomushki tenants and construction workers in the stage version – is re-worked for some of the main characters in a fantasy prologue heard before the title song and credits. Boris is blasted into the arms of Lidochka amidst a firework display (the significance of this is explained below), and the singers directly address the camera as ‘our’ neighbours, asking after our health and family.

Shostakovich wrote at least one new song, ‘We’ll build a house’, for Sergei (published as an appendix in the old Collected Works series, volume 24 [CW24]) and some extended instrumental passages for new action sequences. The latter always involve Boris – who has a greater role in the film – played with panache by Vladimir Vasilyev and looking not unlike a young Danny Kaye. The new passages tend to stand out in terms of orchestration and mood. For example the piano – not part of the orchestra for the stage version – takes the lead (concerto-style) during a comic scene when a portly fireman chases Boris through the collapsed buildings of Tyoplyi Lane (DVD scene 5). This scene is new to the film, since the collapse is only reported in the stage version, but it allows Boris to curry favour with Lidochka’s father by rescuing her from the rubble of her former home (she enters the wreckage to retrieve a cherished photograph of her mother). Some of this ‘chase’ music recurs when Boris and Sergei take Masha, Sasha, Lidochka and her father by jeep through trees filled with different coloured blossom as they make their way to their new ‘Cheryomushki’.

The fantasy sequences transferred easily to the medium of film, the best of which involve dancing. For example, when Masha and Sasha (the young married couple frustrated by having to live apart) dream of a new home of their own, a bird box transforms into an apartment block. They enter this imaginary world and gaze through the windows, imagining the furniture in the different rooms. Cartoon outlines of furniture are projected on to the windows – no dancing ZIL refrigerator or table and chairs as in the stage version. Masha and Sasha are joined by other young couples as they waltz around the surrounding parkland, a stylised landscape which will be very familiar to anyone who has seen the children’s TV series Magic Roundabout from the 1960s and 70s. Later, Boris and Lidochka dance in her new apartment, their costumes magically switching between their normal clothes and outfits from various periods (genteel Edwardian couple out for a stroll, comic robber and his moll, trendy beatniks), and they end up dancing out of the apartment balcony and onto a moving platform, suspended in mid-air by crane. Shortly afterwards, Drebednev and Barabashkin imagine themselves dancing with a scantily-clad Vava in the boudoir she demands in her new apartment.

The nonsensical and saccharine ‘magic garden’ ending in the stage version is less protracted in the film. There are no magic flowers, clock or fountain, just a magic bench that compels all those that sit on it to tell the truth. The final union between Lidochka and Boris is also made more dramatic. After Lidochka spurns Boris for having resorted to devious means like Drebednev and Vava to get her apartment back, Boris is next seen about his job, setting dynamite around Barabashkin’s temporary site office beneath Lidochka’s apartment block. A short instrumental passage with melodic sequences based on Shostakovich’s ubiquitous diminished fourths increases the tension as Boris lights the fuse and – instead of running for cover – nonchalantly picks a daisy and begins to remove its petals, wondering whether Lidochka loves him. Lidochka sees him from her balcony and cries out a warning: Boris is literally blasted into her arms by the force of the explosion, resulting in fireworks and an abrupt happy ending, mirroring the opening fantasy prologue.

Sadly, the soundtrack to Chery-omushki does not have the digital 5.1 option available on the RUSCICO DVD releases of Hamlet and King Lear (reviewed in DSCH 23 and 22, respectively). It has to be admitted that the quality of the mono soundtrack is uneven, with occasional blips despite some enhancement. Nevertheless, the energetic performance of Nikolai Rabinovich and the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra still shines through. Anyone who has only heard Rozhdestvensky’s Chandos recording with the Russian State Symphonic Cappella and the Residentie Orchestra, The Hague (CHAN 9591[2]; reviewed in DSCH 9) will be taken aback by the sheer pace of the music in the film, and will appreciate Mark Roberts’ criticism of Rozhdestvensky’s tempi as ‘plodding’. The casting in the film is wholly appropriate to the respective ages and character types; the singing voices are pleasant and suit their personas. The standard of singing is excellent in terms of diction and intonation, but, whilst I have found no evidence to suggest that the leading actors are miming to voices other than their own, I do have my suspicions. Olga Zabotkina and Vladimir Vasilyev (Lidochka and Boris), were both leading ballet stars and may have been chosen for their dancing prowess (needed for their extended dance scene discussed above) and stage fame rather than their singing abilities.

Never judge a DVD by its packaging: in marketing terms the DVD cover is not very eye-catching when compared to the glossy high-quality photographs on many of the box covers advertised in the Decca catalogue (which is enclosed with the DVD). The text on the Cheryomushki cover is mostly red, in homage to the eponymous fruit, but in general the graphics are rather drab: a greyscale cloudy sky and cityscape behind washed-out colour photos of the main characters. A similar graphical style appears on the DVD menu screens, but with white text, often in a small font-size. The chaotic background and lack of sharp colour contrasts makes legibility difficult for short-sighted TV viewers where there is copious text (as for example in the scene selection and bonus feature screens). Scene selection relies entirely on text rather than the thumbnail icons and short captions normally encountered.

The film is divided into twenty-two scenes, spread across four pages of descriptive titles. The bonus features are barely worth a cursory glance: an eight-page ‘Shostakovich Chron-ology’ and excerpts from two of the recent Decca DVD releases, Katerina Ismailova and Shostakovich against Stalin (reviewed in DSCH 27 and 24 respectively). The Chronology is not comprehensive, with the seemingly arbitrary inclusion of only five film scores. For example, New Babylon and Hamlet are included, but not King Lear or even Cheryomushki itself.

There is an accompanying booklet containing a list of the scene titles from the DVD, a synopsis expanding on their contents, and the essay by Andrew Huth. Both the synopsis and essay are provided in English, French and German. There is also a cast list copied from the film credits, giving just the first names of the ‘young’ characters and surnames for the older ones. For a more helpful description of the relationships between the characters, see either the published score in CW24 or the comprehensive booklet provided in the Chandos recording of the stage version.

Huth’s essay begins by hinting at some of the similarities and differences between Soviet operetta and Broadway musicals, but interrupts this discussion in order to ponder why and how ‘the great, gloomy Shostakovich’ became involved in such a lowbrow project in the first place. The realities behind the plot – cramped living conditions in Moscow and Khrushchev’s ambitious plans to relocate workers in new tower-blocks outside the city – are also explained. Huth remarks how, unusually for the composer, Shostakovich fell behind schedule with the score for the stage version, having begun it at the end of 1957, but not completing it until the following autumn. There is no mention of the health problems Shostakovich suffered in this period: an increasing weakness in his right hand eventually compelled Shostakovich to have hospital treatment in the autumn of 1958. Even though it was excruciatingly painful and sometimes physically impossible to write out the music, Shostakovich carried on sending completed numbers to Stolyarov from his hospital bed and during his subsequent convalescence (see editor’s notes to CW24). The sole paragraph about the film states its new shorter name, Cheryomushki, without explaining the significance of the title change and describes the film version as ‘completely re-thought’, though providing few details regarding these changes. Discussion then reverts to the topic of Soviet operetta and Shostakovich’s love of jazz and light music, before, almost as a postscript, mentioning Shostakovich’s penchant for self-quotations and borrowings, with examples from both the operetta and his more serious works from the late 1950s. The concluding paragraph contrasts the decaying state of the original Cheryomushki housing estate today with the buoyant state of the music, which recently enjoyed two stage productions by rival Russian theatre companies (the Stanislavsky-Nemirovich Danchenko Theatre in Moscow and the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg) during Shostakovich’s centenary year, both incorporating excerpts of the film projected in the background. All very interesting, but, by concentrating mainly on the original stage version, Moskva, Cheryomushki, Huth has missed a perfect opportunity to engage with the film in its own right.

Despite my misgivings about packaging and presentation, this opportunity to see and purchase Cheryomushki is not to be missed and I heartily recommend the film to everyone. Soviet kitsch is not that different from the cheesy ‘feel good’ movies we are used to in the West. The plot may seem unusual to some, but ‘garden city’ developments and tower-block estates were not just a Soviet phenomenon and can be found throughout the developed world; most have failed to match their utopian ideals, due to cost-cutting in initial development, poor maintenance and the inevitable corruption and petty officialdom – so ably demonstrated by Barabashkin and Drebednev – which accompany human administration. This film is guaranteed to put a smile on your face and several annoyingly catchy tunes in your head. Forget about your worries for a while and visit Cheryomushki, where ‘the cherry trees blossom, and all the dreams of its inhabitants are fulfilled.’

Fiona Ford