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Too Good to Miss

ROBERT HUGILL was at the first night of
Tchaikovsky's 'The Tsarina's Slippers'
at Covent Garden


The Tsarina's Slippers (Cherevichki) seems to be one of Tchaikovsky's least known operas, yet he himself regarded it highly. It started out life as Vakula the Smith, a comic opera based on a story by Gogol, which was premièred with some success in 1876. But Tchaikovsky revised it, and in this revised form, as Cherevichki, it was premièred in 1887 at the Bolshoy conducted by the composer. It is not often performed in Russia and hardly ever in the UK. Perhaps some of the problem lies in the fact that not only did Tchaikovsky create two versions, but after his death, Rimsky Korsakov set the story as well, as Christmas Eve, which English National Opera performed in 1988.

Francesca Zamballo did a production of Cherevichki for the Wexford Festival in 1993, when the director of the festival was Elaine Padmore. Padmore, now Director of the Royal Opera, invited Zamballo to re-visit the opera and the result is Covent Garden's delightful Christmas production [seen Friday 20 November 2009].

The designs by Mikhail Mokrov were in charming picture book style and the whole opera looked gorgeous. The costumes by Tatiana Noginova were all traditional, giving the whole piece a folk-inspired look.

The opera opens with Solokha the Witch (Larissa Diadkova) on her roof where she is accosted by the Devil (Maxim Mikhailov) who flirts with her. They fly off together, but not before the Devil creates a storm in revenge for Solokha's son Vakula (Vsevolod Grivnov) painting a picture of the Devil on the church wall. This is a delightful comic scene, and Diadkova and Mikhailov had a great deal of fun. Tchaikovsky has filled the opera with folk-inspired melodies which create just the right sort of atmosphere.

The storm is intended to prevent Chub (Vladimir Matorin) from going out drinking. Chub is Oxana's father and Oxana (Olga Guryakova) is Vakula's beloved so he won't be able to visit her with her father there. In fact Chub and his friend Panas (John Upperton) do make it to the pub.

Oxana is very beautiful and very self regarding. In a solo scene she sings about her own beauty. Guryakova created a beautiful, expressive line for Oxana's solo's, hinting at the haunting beauty of other Tchaikovsky heroines, though there was a little hardness at the top of her voice. When Vakula arrives, she teases Vakula and when her father returns, covered in snow, Vakula throws him out, not recognising him. Oxana is furious and fights with Vakula. Oxana and Vakula never ever get a love duet: it is their fate to spend the opera bickering. Guryakova managed to make the tempestuous Oxana both lovely and charming whilst giving her some fire, although she could, perhaps, have been rather more temperamental.

For the first half of the opera, Vakula seems to be a few pence short of a shilling, and Grivnov did little to dispel this. It is only in the second half of the piece that Vakula comes into his own.

Back at Solokha's house, she is entertaining the Devil when the Mayor (Alexander Vassiliev) comes visiting so she hides the Devil in a sack. By the end of the scene, the popular Solokha has four different men in sacks, when Vakula arrives. This is a funny scene and the cast did their best, but there is no denying that it goes on too long. When the fourth man has to get in the sack, there is little that Tchaikovsky can do to make things different. It doesn't help that he gives the suitors some charming music, which inevitably holds up the action.

Vakula thinks the sacks contain coal and his tools and, though they are heavy, drags them away.

The villagers gather after carol singing. Here Zamballo pulled out all the stops with lots of colour, movement, children and dancing. The villagers admire each other's presents and one girl, Odarka, gets a pair of lovely boots from her boyfriend. Though Oxana regrets being angry with Vakula, she is mocking when he arrives (with his four sacks). Here I thought that Guryakova was just too nice and she could have given the character more edge, but Grivnov caught Vakula's simple devotion. Finally Oxana vows that if Vakula gets her a pair of slippers like the Tsarina's, she will marry him.

These first two acts were charming, but at eighty minutes running time rather outstayed their welcome. Tchaikovsky produced some delightful folk-inspired music, but the plot rather meanders. All this changes in the final two acts.

Act 3 opens at the Enchanted Lake. Here, choreographer Alastair Marriott created a scene for dancers from the Royal Ballet, a lovely water ballet. But when Vakula appears, he is depressed. He is still pulling one sack, having left the other three behind at the end of the previous act. (They opened to hilarious effect during the act finale.) As Vakula sings, the lead water sprite (dancer Gary Avis) tries to pull him into the water. Here Vakula's character comes into its own and he gets a lovely yearning aria which Grivnov caught to perfection. This scene shows the way Tchaikovsky mixed serious and comic elements in the opera as after Vakula's aria, the Devil gets out of the bag and promises Vakula anything in return for his soul. But Vakula catches the Devil's tail and as he is a smith, is strong enough to hold it. So the Devil agrees to take Vakula to the Tsarina's court. They fly off.

The court scene transports us to a different world, with music that would not be out of place in Tchaikovsky's grand romantic ballets, and in fact some was re-used for John Cranko's ballet Eugene Onegin. Mokrov's designs for the court made witty use of the image of the palace which appeared both as a backdrop, on the courtier's clothes and elements of it formed the seating and the women's headdresses. There is general praise of the Tsarina, including an ode from His Highness (Sergei Leiferkus). A pair of danced interludes followed, first a formal dance from members of the Royal Ballet and then four cossack dancers, with choreography again by Alastair Marriott. Vakula is presented to His Highness and asks for a pair of golden slippers; the courtiers are so charmed that the request is granted. Vakula returns home with the slippers on the devil's back.

Back in the village, Solokha and Oxana grieve for Vakula, who they think has committed suicide. This duet was one of the high points of the opera. Having so far sung only comic numbers, Diadkova slipped easily into serious mode and was beautifully balanced by Guryakova.

But of course, Vakula isn't dead, and the opera ends with much dancing and rejoicing.

This was a charming performance, which neatly mixed the comic and serious elements in the opera. The large cast, predominantly Russian speaking, threw themselves into Zamballo's inventive production with a will. There is a case to be made for performing the opera in English. Many of the comic scenes would work far better, and I hope that the Royal Opera might consider reviving the opera in English. But the chance to hear so many wonderful Russian voices singing in their native language was too good to miss.

Copyright © 22 November 2009 Robert Hugill,
London UK






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