Cheryomushki is Shostakovitch's forgotten opera. Written in 1959, 25 years after the premiere of his previous operatic work, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsenk District, Cheryomushki is more of an operetta than a hefty opera.
A new production by the British company Opera North of Cheryomushki, renamed Paradise Moscow, is a fast-paced, light-hearted musical that sends the audience out into the street humming a rousing chorus of "Cheryomushki!"
A gallery of Soviet types
The story centres around a new housing estate, called Cheryomushki, which is being constructed on the outskirts of Moscow, and its crowd of aspiring tenants. The tenants are a varied group of Soviet types.
First we meet Lusya, the buxom construction worker and her wimpy boyfriend Sergei. Sergei is chauffeur to the local party boss, Drebednyov, whose greedy mistress is keen to use Drebednyov's influence to get herself installed in an extra-large, four-room flat.
Meanwhile, the estate's caretaker, Barabashkin, holds all the keys to the new flats, and expects the tenants to bribe him with bottles of vodka before he will hand the keys over. The tenants that have been promised new flats in Cheryomushki include a young museum guide, Sasha, and his wife, who have no home of their own and have to seize intimate moments in the Metro station or in corners of the museum.
Sasha's colleague, Lidochka, has also been promised a new flat, even though her father does not want to move from their old home in central Moscow because he feels lost in the concrete splendour of the new housing suburb. Meanwhile, Lidochka is preoccupied with her desire to find a perfect partner, and catches the eye of a feckless young man called Boris.
In the course of the opera, party boss Drebednyov tries to cheat Lidochka and her father out of their flat, so that his mistress will get her four rooms. However, Lusya rallies all the tenants to complain to the authorities. Drebednyov's dastardly scheme is foiled, and he and the greedy caretaker are demoted to floor sweepers. Meanwhile, after a rocky start and a number of rows, Lidochka and Boris are united in everlasting love. As Jane Austen once said: "The good end happily, and the bad unhappily."
A change in score
Cheryomushki was not performed in Britain until 1994, when Pimlico Opera staged it with a new orchestration by Gerald McBurney. Shostakovich's original score made use of a full-size orchestra, which was used with full effect to make facetious references to Viennese opera, with a cluster of accessible songs, dance numbers and dialogue to keep the story moving.
Shostakovich declared that his intention was to treat a serious subject in a "gay and sprightly manner," and Opera North's production certainly proceeds at a gay and sprightly pace. However, some of the comic effect of the original score has been sacrificed in the new orchestration—as the reduced size of the band no longer allows Viennese opera to be parodied. McBurney's score compensates for this by introducing a range of comic effects with percussion, jazzy saxophone and an ill-tuned piano, but they serve to push the work further towards light musical, and away from all parodic references to opera. More seriously, much of Shostakovich's sinew and muscle is also lost.
Soviet types for a Western audience
A second difficulty with this production is that many of the "types" that make up the cast are not well known to a Western audience. Although Lusya, the buxom construction worker, is a familiar stereotype, and the image of Lidochka as a mousy museum curator is fairly universal, the character of Boris is more problematic.
Boris is supposed to be a Stilyaga—a member of a group of urban youngsters who emerged in Russia after the war who were more interested in fashion, jazz and girls than they were in serious matters such as politics and Soviet affairs. The Stilyagi didn't form a culture of their own, but fostered an anti-culture and a stance of non-participation in the stream of Soviet life and morals.
In Opera North's production, Boris is presented as a teddy boy, and comes over as a seedy Shakin' Stevens look-a-like rather than a genuinely subversive rebel, whom Lidochka, the conscientious museum worker, would fundamentally disapprove of and do her best to avoid. By losing this opposition between the opera's two central characters, much of the original tension of the plot is lost.
The production attempts to hint that all is not as paradisiacal in Moscow as might appear on the shiny facades of Cheryomushki by introducing a flock of secret police who wander on-stage to scowl at the tenants from time to time. However, the effect is rather too crude: the secret police look like Gestapo agents from the BBC TV comedy series 'Allo 'Allo, and do not compensate for the loss of Shostakovich's original, hidden tension which was woven into the fabric of the plot.
If Paradise Moscow is watched for what it is, rather than what it is not, then the production can only be praised. It is not a recreation of Shostakovich's original opera, or an attempt to communicate his original ideas. However, this production is an entertaining and light-hearted musical with a strong cast, strong visual design, lively dancing, and it successfully demonstrates that Cheryomushki should be much better known.
Isobel Hunter, 4 June 2001