Cherevichki / The Tsarina's Slippers - Royal Opera House, 20 November 2009
The Royal Opera House have chosen to bestow upon their new production of Tchaikovsky's Черевички (Cherevichki or Tcherevichki) an appropriately Royal title - The Tsarina's Slippers - in place of The Little Shoes, as it's usually known in English. Me I prefer the punchier and more accurate Little Boots, but sadly that one is already taken.
Francesca Zambello's folksy production with its mostly-Russian cast is intermittently entertaining but I spent much of its three hours looking at my watch and dreaming of crisps.
The opera's lack of momentum, which must play a part in the relative rarity of performances, can't be blamed entirely on the director though. Tchaikovsky doesn't seem to care much for his central story in which Vakula, a simple village smith, enlists the Devil's aid to procure a pair of the Tsarina's fancy boots, the only way he can win the heart of a vain village girl. He seems more interested in Vakula's witchy mother and her gruesome suitors, not to mention the numerous opportunities to slip in a quick ballet.
However enchanting some of these diversionary episodes are, they all fragment the story to the point where it's hard to care less about any of the characters. You could wander out for ten minutes and not really miss anything (a point to bear in mind when the BBC broadcast this over Xmas). The inevitable cuts don't help either. Why keep in all the royal minister's endless windbagging, but cut out the Cossacks' entrance to court, which explains how Vakula gets in to see the Tsarina?
For all the Royal Opera's attempts to sell this opera as Tchaikovsky's hidden comic side, it's telling that Vakula's longest and most effective scene is not some festive fairytale nonsense, but the one where he's contemplating suicide at the water's edge.
Two things hold this production together. The first is Alexander Polianichko's marvellous conducting. He doesn't just display the music, he conducts the whole opera with a splendid ear for drama and support for the singers. Inevitably some colour and detail is sacrificed for pace, but I think it's the right choice. The other is the design. Mikhail Mokrov's charmingly naive sets and Tatiana Noginova's traditionally-inspired costumes fill the stage with busy colour, though at the expense sometimes of any clear idea of location.
Apart from that, it's a collection of set pieces, some more successful than others, with the highlights coming from the Royal Ballet's contributions. Alastair Marriott went with a traditionally-styled pastiche that fits the production like a glove. His perfectly-judged idiomatic choreography includes an underwater nymph dance, a royal ball and a couple of delightful pas de deux, Gary Avis lofting tiny Mara Galeazzi with a grace and purity of line that made an affecting contrast to the riotous clamour of the village peasantry. A huge hairy dancing bear in pointe shoes (we guessed Bennet Gartside from the size) added more colour to the grand party finale.
The biggest applause of the night went deservedly to the team of spectacular high-kicking Cossack dancers who emerged from beneath the skirts of a giant golden Tsarina effigy - their chapkas and p0rn 'taches cunningly concealing the fact they come from Nottingham.
The singing was Russian through and through, full of heart and gusto. Not a lot of finesse though. The likeable Vsevolod Grivnov had to work hard to be heard, but his lyrical tenor made Vakula the pick of the bunch. Olga Guryakova's powerful but wayward soprano made it only too clear that the part of the shoe-loving Oxana is not an easy sing. At least the petulant charm that enraptures Vakula came more easily than the notes.
Maxim Mikhailov was desperately underpowered as the Devil, as none of his tail-twirling antics could conceal - was his prosthetic piggy snout a problem perhaps? Larissa Diadkova's mumsy witch Solokha would put the wind up no-one. At this stage in her long career she sounds more timeworn than her remarkably smooth brow might suggest, but that's no handicap in this part. The one unequivocally successful non-dancing scene ended in a quartet with her four lovers concealed in coal sacks - some splendid deep Russian voices especially from Vladimir Matorin as Chub.
The vocal shortcomings might have been less obvious if the singers had been better directed. But it appeared everyone had been choreographed into position and left to their own devices, leaving the task of entertaining the audience to the scenery. It almost worked.
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