Elvis Costello remarked that classically-trained singers perform popular songs 'with a comedy hat on' - hinting that they are better than the material.
Opera North perform Shostakovich's light operetta Paradise Moscow (translated and directed by David Pountney) with enthusiasm and commitment to give a stylish, and funny production. The company push what is acceptable in the genre to include dance moves, pop art sets and costumes by Robert Innes Hopkins, with some ad-libs thrown in for good measure.
Nor is historical detail ignored - we are reminded that Soviet citizens were compelled to share accommodation with complete strangers. The orchestra, conducted by James Holmes, is in on the joke; using bells, whistles and football rattles to strike a discordant note when needed.
In 1950s Moscow the lives of a number of lovers and potential lovers revolve around Cheryomuski (Cherry Tree Estate) , a new high-rise development being constructed on the city's outskirts. Construction worker Lusya (Claire Preston) despairs of her shy suitor ever declaring his intentions. Whilst in the background we see him trying to get to her scaling walls and flying in a hot air balloon to do so.
Sasha (Grant Doyle) and Masha (Bibi Head) are unable to consummate their marriage as they have to live separately. Their passionate embrace in a museum moves even the statutes. This leads to an excellent sequence as the consumer goods about which the lovers fantasise are brought to life by the cast in Innes Hopkins' wonderful costumes. Director Hopkins makes good use of the chorus to gives us the sound of the massed Soviet workers.
An unusual feature of the operetta is David Hulston's choreography allowing dancers to create fantasies of magic gardens and Soviet icons who watch over the conflict of the characters. The actor who benefits most from the choreography is Summer Strallen whose high kicks and cartwheels steal the show. She and Eaton James are a classic mis-matched couple, as she is a lonely academic and he a wannabe Elvis. During their dance Strallen is spun around, and sometimes off, the stage becoming increasingly, and attractively, dishevelled in the process.
The couples face a range of obstacles on their way to gaining an apartment including corrupt officials enjoying their power over desperate people or seeking accommodation for their girlfriends. This sparkling production is brought bang up to date with some ad-libs ( "rocking the boat and draining the moat") to demonstrate that greed never really goes away.
Paradise Moscow goes to show that for an opera to be really funny, the material has to be treated with respect and as a result, this excellent show should not be missed.