As the headlines in the news have inevitably stoked an anti-Russian sentiment which is at risk of extending from the political decision-makers to the Russian people who too are their victims – and as episodes of censorship suggesting the erasure of all things Russian-related have repeatedly been pointed out in recent month – it is all the more refreshing to see the WNO make yet another intelligent, ambitious choice in delving into an aspect of Russian culture and history that is perhaps usually less prominent on the radar of music lovers.
This time it is the WNO Youth Opera, delving into Shostakovich’s Cherry Town, Moscow, a musical comedy set in the USSR in the years following the death of Stalin, which manages to capture complex and in places rather heavy social themes with a remarkably light-hearted touch. As alien to us as the culture of the Soviet Union might sound, the human relatability of the characters and many elements in the situations depicted, too, come across as surprisingly relevant to contemporary themes and sensitivities, making the show easily engaging and equally easily thought-provoking; but if you are looking at a somber reflection on class inequality, the abuse of power by the bureaucracy, and the difficulties faced by those who rely on precarious social housing (all core themes in the text), you could not be further from what this production is.
Cherry Town, Moscow is first and foremost a comedy, and it approaches its rather political themes from a cheeky, ironic point of view. Well aware of this fact, the WNO Youth Opera production manages to strike a good balance between the light-hearted narrative style and the genuine emotion channelled by the character, delivering a show that had no trouble getting a laugh out of its audience before sending them home with a good amount of lingering thoughts and reflection in their mind.
Morgana Warren Jones and Chorus, photo credit Craig Fuller
Much as it does have central characters and plotlines that it follows – primarily the quest of Semyon (Tomos Owen Jones) and his daughter Lidochka (Rusne Tuslaite) to secure the State housing promised to them as they are confronted with the abuse of power perpetrated by the bureaucrat Drebyednyetsov (Mica Smith) and the estate manager Barabashkin (Jared Michaud), intertwined between two (ultimately successful, as the comedy setting comands) love stories – Cherry Town, Moscow is very much a choral piece. The true protagonists are the residents of the new Cheryomushki development, as a group; it is only their joint action that ultimately resolves the situation, and their solidarity and care for each other is easily the strongest theme in the text. This idea of those who have less banding together not only to confront power, but also to find moments of genuine happiness and celebration in spite of objectively tough situations, is the pervasive mood of a work that offers a portrait of post-Stalin USSR remarkably frank in addressing the difficult living conditions faced by many, but also consistently hopeful in its depiction of optimism and solidarity.
The WNO Youth Opera production happily engages with all of this and leans into the deliberately chaotic mood of the text for all that it’s got, aided by a colourful set and costume design and an ability to not take itself too seriously while taking the overarching themes of Shostakovich’s work extremely seriously. Aptly for such a choral work, the ensemble works together like a well-oiled machine, and a good part of the success of the production is due to the great chemistry all cast members appear to have with each other. Alongside the ones already mentioned, performances by Rhydian Jenkins and Dafydd Allen as the two friends Sergei and Boris, the primary initiators of the pushback against the bureaucratic abuse (and the protagonists of their respective romantic sub-plots) must be mentioned as stand-outs, as does the bright and charismatic delivery of Emily Rooke as the worker Lucy. HoWang Yuen and Lowri Probert also shine as Sasha and Masha, two newlyweds long kept apart by the precarity of their housing situation, delivering some of the funniest moments in the show but also some of the most genuinely touching.
Far from being a relic of a time and place too distant from us for genuine connection, Cherry Town, Moscow – here presented in English-language adaptation – is as fresh as engaging now as when it was first written, offering both a spot of enjoyable entertainment and an occasion to muse upon how the experiences of people so distant from us might be in fact a much closer reflection of our own than we might have first thought.