Unrelenting jollity is not something most people would associate with Shostakovich but it’s an apt description for his 1958 Cheryomushki, performed by the students of the Royal Academy of Music as Moscow Paradise in the work’s 50th Anniversary year.
Even in sombre moments, the piece is underpinned by lilting waltz rhythms just ready to explode into more Keystone Cop-like chases and Soviet-style hilarity.
If you had to shoehorn Cheryomushki into a pigeonhole, the most comfortable fit would be “musical comedy”, rather than opera or even operetta. The glamour of Broadway may seem a million miles away from Shostakovich’s drab Moscow housing development but (almost) contemporaraneous works like Bernstein’s On the Town come to mind again and again. Anyone who knows the composer’s Jazz Suites and lighter film scores will be familiar with the territory. You can hear shades of Kurt Weill, Gilbert and Sullivan and a fair few dollops of Offenbach lurking too, although here we are awash with the odour of cheap vodka instead of the fizz of fine champagne.
The plot follows a group of down-trodden citizens eager to take advantage of the post-Stalinist housing boom and gain possession of their very own apartments with attendant “municipal happiness”. It doesn’t shy away from the corruption of officialdom, those comrades more equal than the rest who cream off the best for themselves, or a system in which the central heating is on during Summer but guaranteed to be stone cold in Winter.
With his characteristic and stylish inventiveness, John Fulljames is the ideal director for this material. He keeps the RAM students animated through bustling movement, energetic dance sequences (choreographed by Mandy Demetriou) and hard physical labour in the form of stacks of breezeblocks which become a real building site on stage. Accents are also a moveable feast, ranging from cod Russian, German and Italian and genuine Northern English, Australian and Korean. Whether this denotes cosmopolitanism (in Soviet Moscow?), directorial whimsy or the lack of a dialect tutor, it’s impossible to fathom.
For the most part, singing talent (abundant) far outweighs acting ability, although in Gerard Collett and Kristen Darragh‘s Sasha and Masha the production is blessed in both departments. Katherine Crotty is a feisty wrench-wielding Lyusya and David Butt Philip and Lisa Crosato work hard to bring colour to the unlikely coupling of explosives expert Boris and starchy but cute (whip-off-those-thick-glasses-and-there’s-a-beauty-beneath) museum guide Lidochka.
The tight little band revels in Gerard McBurney’s arrangement of the bouncy score under the confident baton of Dominic Wheeler. David Pountney’s witty translation, familiar from Pimlico Opera’s memorable 1994 production, sparkles although clarity of delivery is an issue in a work that does not easily explain itself.
Alex Lowde‘s simple sets add utilitarian style, neatly summing up the oxymoronic nature of this light and breezy Soviet-era extravaganza.