As the political philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek has observed, cultural relics from communist Russia seem not to attract the kind of opprobrium today in the same way as those from Nazi Germany do. The symbol of the hammer and sickle, for instance, is tolerated, and can even be worn as a fashion statement; the Nazi rendering of the swastika, however, is not. For him, the reason lies not in some monstrous double standard (even while we must also remember that both regimes produced monstrous outcomes) but in the fact that we instinctively recognise that an ideology forged out of a desire to improve economic relations retains a kernel of rational idealism, whereas a racially defined ideology is, at its core, irrational and obscene.
All the same, we should remain uncomfortable about simply enjoying official communist art, perhaps only more given some of the dismal echoes of that era that we find today in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Maybe that is what encouraged Victorian Opera to move the setting of Shostakovich’s Moscow, Cheryomushki, a Soviet-approved musical about a housing project dating from 1959, to modern-day Melbourne. It is a move, however, that is only partially successful, although clearly the creative team approached the task with verve and skill.
When UK-based Opera North mounted a production in 2001, they kept the original setting but called it “Paradise Moscow” and instead turned it into a piece of overt political satire about the Soviet Regime of a kind that that would have been impossible when Shostakovich wrote. Victorian Opera’s adaptation, however, actually ends up sticking more closely to the core subject matter of the Soviet original, but as a result also has to contend head-on with the fact that for most of us there is no direct equivalent to the kind of state housing project that inspired the original. Housing has become here less a fundamental right and obligation of the state than a means for those with spare capital to generate more of it at others’ expense. This shift in context in which the protagonists operate in this new version is never made clear.
Add to that the fact that the original also helped itself to a slice of Russian magic realism in the form of a magic garden that conveniently appears towards the end of the second Act and it becomes obvious that a resetting of Moscow, Cheryomushki was always going to challenge this otherwise entertaining and finely detailed staging by Constantine Costi. Other incongruities include the fact that all the main characters kept their original names – are we to understand that this is now a story peculiar to Russian emigrants in Melbourne? The libretto, originally by Vladimir Mass and Mikhail Chervinsky, was presented substantially in the form that (an uncredited) David Pountney developed in 1994, and while it is both effective and amusing, the resultant melange led to some unfortunate lines such as “1802, the Melbourne our ancestors knew”.
Nevertheless, Costi and conductor Simon Bruckard ensured their young cast and chorus were well drilled and performed with confidence, even if sometimes a strong characterisation risked tipping over into caricature. The cast’s relatively small voices, and the acoustics of the Playhouse Theatre, made the amplification of all principals a necessity (which made the solid work of Sound Designer Samuel Moxham crucial to the success of the show). Vocal stand-outs, however, were Douglas Kelly (Boris) and Michael Dimovski (Sergey), Syrah Torii (Masha), Teresa Ingrilli (Lidochka), and Amanda Windred (Vava), who also were the characters most given opportunities by the score to deliver moments of genuine lyrical pathos. It was also fun to share in the obvious delight that Alastair Cooper-Golec (Drebednyov) and Nicholas Beecher (Barabashkin) brought to their respective roles as comic book-style villains, and all had strong diction (it was great to see Victorian Opera trust their cast in this respect and not provide surtitles!). Cast and chorus moved on stage with confidence; Shannon Burns (Movement Director) was especially resourceful in finding ways to ensure that the original dance numbers were imaginative and competently realised by all. Similarly, Dann Barber’s attractive and stylish set and Sabina Myers’ excellent costumes were ably supported by Lisa Mibus’ effective lighting.
Shostakovich once dismissed the music for Cheryomushki as “boring, feeble and stupid”, and it is certainly true that it lacks the bite and irony of, say, the music theatre works of Kurt Weill, or of his own Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. But the score is unquestionably catchy, and within it can yet be found touches of gentle parody and Russian melancholy. Originally composed for a large theatre orchestra, here it was delivered using Gerald McBurney’s clever and supple chamber arrangement that also dates from 1994. Bruckard directed the voices on stage and the ensemble in the pit with confidence and skill.
While this reworking of Cheryomushki proffered no great insight into economic, social, and moral dilemmas that underlie either the current Melbourne housing crisis, or the original Soviet one – and that I think was, in the end, a missed opportunity – It was at least good fun along the way.
Photo credit: Charlie Kinross
Peter Tregear reviewed Victorian Opera’s production of “Melbourne, Cheremushki”, a resetting of Shostakovich’s “Moscow, Cheryomushki”, performed at Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse Theatre on March 22, 2023.