Opera North celebrates its 30th birthday in part with this eagerly awaited revival of David Pountney’s sparklingly fresh English version of Shostakovich’s satirical operetta on corrupt officialdom (and the power of the people standing against it) in late 50s Moscow. Originally called Mosckva Cheryomushki (Moscow Cherry Tree Estate), Pountney’s version appears under the title Paradise Moscow.
It’s 1958 – the Royal Academy of Music opera department’s production last year (using Pountney’s wicked translation) celebrated the work’s 50th birthday – and the new Cherry Tree housing estate is almost ready to move into. We follow three couples – the first married, Grant Doyle’s Sasha and Bibi Heal’s Masha, but who can never get any peace in their communal home so have to have secret trysts during the day; the second chauffeur Sergei (Philip O’Brien) who is too shy to propose to his construction worker sweetheart Lusya (Claire Pascoe); and, finally, the yet to be introduced itinerant explosive’s expert – the programme describes him as “a disreputable vagrant and dissident Soviet rocker in search of his soul” – Boris (the magnificently mulletted Eaton James, with his constant Tommy Steele smile) and prim museum guide Summer Strallen.
In fact it is the last couple that form the main bulk of the story – it’s a will-she/won’t she tale as he falls for her in the Museum of the History and Reconstruction of Moscow, then pursues her and her father Baburov (Steven Beard) to the new estate and helps them regain their flat (No 48) from bureaucrat Drebyednyetsov (Richard Angas) whose girlfriend Vava (Margaret Preece) has demanded a flat double the size, so estate manager Barabashkin (Peter Bodenham) has simply smashed the wall down into No 48 and claimed it for his boss.
Oh what a tangled web Shostakovich weaves, but also how entertainingly. Surely he or his librettists, Vladimir Mass and Mikhail Chervinsky, must have seen Bernstein’s On the Town, as the first half includes scenes in a museum and a whistle-stop tour of the city by car, and Shostakovich’s invention can stand proud against Bernstein’s. Every tune is a winner and has an infectious rhythm that you can’t get out of your mind. From the opening chorus where everybody asks everybody else how well they are, to the numerous ballet sequences, wittily masterminded by Craig Revel Horwood (way before Strictly Come Dancing fame) and here recreated by David Hulston, Shostakovich has written a constant string of winners, here brought to life in Gerard McBurney’s orchestrations, with a little help from conductor James Holmes, who returns to the production eight years on.
With bit parts for dancing kitchen appliances (a leap on from Martinu’s La revue de cuisine) – cooker, fridge, blender and, perhaps most importantly, a cocktail cabinet; walk-on parts for Marx, Lenin and Stalin, let alone dancing museum exhibits (an Alexander Nevsky lookalike for the past, a bronzed, shirtless construction worker for the present and spaceman for the future); and, finally, be-lawned inhabitants of the magic garden with pots of flowers on their head, Pountney and his designer, Robert Innes Hopkins, have swathed the comedy in surreal images, adding to the effect.
From the construction workers tapping out the overture’s rhythm on fellow worker’s hard hats onwards, this is a show to knock spots of most West End musicals – and it was great to see Summer Strallen and Eaton James jump ship to an opera company: the ideal leading couple, and really terrific dancers to boot.
Both as a corrective to the symphonic or quartet idea of the tortured Shostakovich, but also as a sparkling addition to the operetta tradition, Opera North’s birthday present to itself, Paradise Moscow, is one of the most exhilarating revivals this year. Bring it back soon, please!
There is, in fact, one more chance to catch Paradise Moscow in the UK – back at Opera North’s Leeds home, the Grand Theatre, on 26 June; otherwise you’ll have to travel to the beautiful Austrian lakeside setting of the Bregenz Opera Festival, where the company takes not only Shostakovich, but also Sawyer’s Skin Deep and Of Thee I Sing.