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Municipal happiness

Sadlers Wells
05/23/2001 -  and 24, 25 and 26 May
Dmitri Shostakovich: Paradise Moscow
Rachel Taylor (Lusya), Alan Oke (Sergei), Loren Geeting (Boris), Richard Angas (Drebyednyetsov), Campbell Morrison (Barabashkin), Steven Beard (Baburov), Daniel Broad (Sasha), Gillian Kirkpatrick (Masha), Janie Dee (Lidochka), Margaret Preece (Vava)

Steven Sloane (conductor), David Pountney (director)
Opera North orchestra and chorus

Paradise Moscow, originally Moscva, Cheryomushki, looks on paper like one for anoraks. Shostokovich's third complete work of music theatre is described as, and is, an operetta after the Vienna Strausses and Lehar, though set in the contemporary (1959) Soviet Union with working-class characters apart from the villains. It might be toe-curling as well as line-toeing. But, at least in David Pountney's adaptation and Gerard McBurney's orchestration, it turns out to be a late addition to the canon of immediate post-war musicals represented by Weill's later American works, the best of Cole Porter and (in their artful populism at least) Guys and Dolls and Oklahoma. It fits well into Opera North's tradition of producing high-end musicals in the operatic succession.

Shostakovich's musical numbers are pure operetta, cabaret or popular songs, mainly character based, with no obvious subversions of the genres. Instead, they form sentimental or amusing interludes in an Aristophanic plot which begins in horror and ends in fantasy: the corrupt administrators of the eponymous new apartments won't hand over the keys to the working stiffs who have been assigned them. We are particularly interested in Lidochka, a dreamy but frumpy tour guide at the Museum of the History and Reconstruction of Moscow and her dad, Baburov, whose house has fallen in, and Sasha and Masha, a newly married couple who have nowhere to do what newly married couples do in musicals. The big boss tries to appropriate Lidochka's apartment for his girlfriend. Boris, a demonic explosives expert who wants to get married (in this production definitely a latter-day Papageno), and the people, led by the builder Lusya (a proletarian Miss Adelaide who is always being stood up by the big boss's chauffeur Sergei) intervene with guile and magic to save the day.

David Pountney's production, on a neat, wonderfully 1950s, set designed by Robert Innes Hopkins (trompe l'oeil perspective museum room and tower blocks, and an empty apartment) tended to emphasise the Brechtian and the Broadway rather than the operetta or the magic. It didn't always quite cohere in a score that is heavy on the old-fashioned sentimental numbers. Sasha and Masha's fantasy ballet - kitchen appliances dance in their dream apartment - came as naturally as ballets in musical ever do. But Lidochka's dream, in which sugar-plum sprites torment her with the key she cannot have until Boris captures it and give it to her, came from nowhere in narrative terms, and wasn't quite motivated by the previous interaction between this Lidochka and Boris. And the magic garden (created by Lusya and her people-pals) was limp, a few tables and a plastic flower per person, suggesting a very unMarxian appeal to the power of imagination. The business with the bench - whoever sits on it tells the truth - was well done and very funny, though.

The dance numbers themselves were splendid, an ingenious merger of mainstream ballet and show set-pieces. The jiving allegorical statues in the museum were particularly funny. Several of the main characters have song-and-dance numbers, which made for interesting casting (along the lines of Opera North's production of Of thee I sing a couple of years ago).

Janie Dee as the initially frumpy Lidochka was decidedly weedy vocally, though she put over her sad song touchingly and her dancing made up for everything. Campbell Morrison as the nominally non-singing Barabashkin, the spivvy site manager, managed a strong if pitchless sprechstimme and some cracking dancing. The actor Stephen Beard was very Russian as Baburov, Lidochka's dad who pines for the old Moscow and goes ironically mad when he finds himself homeless. His character, naturally passive, tended to get lost in the bravura. Most of the other performers from the music-theatre side of things were vocally at least robust, and the opera singers were generally suitably theatrical. Daniel Broad and Gillian Kirkpatrick (one of each) as Sasha and Masha were perfectly co-ordinated, and Rachel Taylor was chunky and spunky as Lusya the worker heroine. Alan Oke sang wonderfully but was rather bland as her unreliable beau, Sergei. Richard Angas as the big boss might have been a bit too operettaish, but he had a good go at the song-and-dance numbers. Margaret Preece was excruciatingly strident and very funny as the boss's aspirational girlfriend Vava. The outstanding performance, though, was probably Loren Geeting as the mysterious Boris. Described at one point as a Russian Elvis, he was dressed accordingly and had a fair proportion of the vocal stuff to match. His character fizzled a bit towards the end, because his devious way of resolving things is the unsound one and gets brushed aside. But he was a striking presence throughout.

The Opera North chorus seemed to be having fun most of the time performing with Soviet-style commitment. The orchestra, playing Gerald McBurney's cut-down and joked-up arrangement of Shostakovich's Sullivanesque score (originally for an augmented full opera orchestra) were thoroughly deranged in a controlled kind of way, and sounded particularly Russian in that respect.

H.E. Elsom



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