Shostakovich’s 1959 operetta Moscow, Cheryomushki (“Paradise Moscow”) is to date one of the most uncomfortable evenings I have ever spent in a theatre, though, I hasten to add, not because of the performance. The RNCM in recent years has presented some incredible shows, Barber’s tragic Vanessa and Monteverdi’s epic Ulisse, for example, and tonight’s performance from the singers, orchestra and director was excellent – but this rare example of the lighter Shostakovich is not an experience I would care to repeat. As an undergraduate I bought the re-issued 1963 film of Shostakovich’s Cheryomushki – I thought it was nuts then and I think it is nuts still.

© RNCM
© RNCM

As one might imagine, a mid 20th-century Russian operetta would have been conceived under remarkable circumstances: a strict Soviet government with rigid censorship rules that hung ominously over the heads of all native artists and, consequently, the plot I found a most insoluble and bitter pill – a rather typical “good triumphs over evil” story with the baddies getting their comeuppance at the end, but in order to arrive at the end you have to endure over two hours of a predictable, grim libretto. This, of course, is not Shostakovich’s fault.

Nonetheless, Shostakovich’s score also is awkward and, though containing the occasional brilliant melody, it is repetitive and lacks variety, the same worn-out musical sentiments being dragged along by a verbose, pseudo-jazz, over-written, over-intelligent, propaganda-like Soviet play with music, with none of the light-heartedness of even the worst American musicals of the day to offer some form of contrast or relief. I could almost imagine soldiers with rifles on stage barking “You WILL have fun now!” – in Russian, obviously... Imagine listening to Shostakovich’s Jazz Suites for two and a half hours and you’ll get the measure of the music – a suite of the operetta does exist, in fact, and that I think is more than enough.

Tonight’s performance was excellent, but did come accompanied by some problems of its own: regardless of the boring plot, it does have its funny moments (though these owed more to the direction than to the libretto or music) and we were fortunate that the production was in English, but with surtitles – so we could read the joke before it was spoken and laugh in all the wrong places. This was unnecessary and a shame for the actors as spoken and sung diction from cast and chorus was very good.

The orchestra, conducted by Clark Rundell, was excellent, and approached Shostakovich’s score with a greater degree of understanding than I have found in other student productions; this must of course be due to the popularity of Shostakovich’s orchestral works and concerti, giving the orchestra a head-start as, at university age, it is more likely that they should be familiar with Shostakovich’s musical style than with the usual opera composers – had tonight’s opera been Puccini, Verdi, Rossini or Donizetti, the orchestra would certainly have needed greater grooming. Occasionally they were too loud for both the auditorium and the singers, who had to work very hard, but this problem of balance is down to the conductor.

The production itself was extremely entertaining – whimsical and quite lavish, but very colourful with traditional 1950s costumes and a rather angular set design incorporating some imaginative uses of staging and props; a scene in which five cast members take a spin in a car was very amusing.

The principal cast and chorus got into the spirit of things as far as they were able and much of the humour of the work was due to their acting abilities. In particular the luscious-voiced Daniel Shelvey as the lovestruck Boris was both the strongest actor and singer with a chocolatey baritone register not dissimilar from former RNCM star Simon Keenlyside. Female-lead construction worker Lucy, played by Jenny Carson, sang beautifully, but the intelligent and melodiously refined performance of museum guide Lidochka by Fiona Hymns was enchanting – with a strong stage presence and a voice to match Hymns was the perfect vocal partner to Shelvey. Comedy was best found in the wicked jobsworth Barabashkin of James Foster who revelled in squeezing as much humour out of a rather dry part as he could muster.

It is, I think, a pleasure to be able to tick Cheryomushki off the list of things a musical theatre/operetta enthusiast would like to see, but I doubt I would wish to see this work again, and can only imagine how excellently the present cast would tackle a real theatre masterpiece by Sondheim or maybe Rodgers and Hammerstein.

****1