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Tchaikovsky’s Cinderella

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
11/20/2009 -  & 23, 25, 28 November, 1, 3, 5, 8 December
Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky: The Tsarina’s slippers (Cherevichki)

Larissa Diadkova (Solokha), Maxim Mikhailov (The Devil), Vladimir Matorin (Chub), John Upperton (Panas), Olga Guryakova (Oxana), Vsevolod Grivnov (Vakula), Alexander Vassiliev (Pan Golova), Viacheslav Voynarovskiy (The schoolmaster), Olga Sabadoch (Odarka), Changhan Lim (Wood Goblin), Andrew Macnair (Echo), Sergei Leiferkus (His highness), Jeremy White (Master of ceremonies), Mara Galeazzi, Gary Avis (Principal dancers)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Alexander Polianichko (conductor)
Francesca Zambello (director), Mikhail Mokrov (Set designs), Tatiana Noginova (Costume designs), Rick Fisher (Lighting design), Alastair Marriott (Choreography)

(© The Royal Opera/Bill Cooper)

You have to hand it to Covent Garden’s marketing department. Rather than pitch this Tchaikovsky obscurity solely to sad, rarity groupies, like me, they’ve audaciously packaged it up as a fun, festive treat for all the family: The Nutcracker with singing, if you like. The Russian title of Cherevichki is apologetically hidden under the bigger font of The Tsarina’s Slippers, a title friendly enough for Angelina the Ballerina fans, although they’ve missed a trick by not calling it Little Boots, an even more desirable demographic and a more accurate translation. Yet, it appears to have worked. Despite no major stars, notwithstanding Diadkova and Leiferkus, the house was full, not just with gout-infested score readers but people sold on spectacle and enchantment. Just after the mouthful of bleach that was Christof Loy’s cerebral, inconsiderately stage-right Tristan und Isolde, this gorgeously staged folk tale comes like a welcome slice of Black Forest gâteau.

Adapted closely from Gogol’s 1830’s short story, Christmas Eve, Tchaikovsky’s mad folk tale deals with the Devil’s bargain with a witch’s son, Vakula, a sweet natured blacksmith, to help him win over his dream girl, Oxana, with a pair of boots like the Zsarina’s. The witch, an amiable tart, be it with the Devil or three of the villagers, deals with her commitment problems by hiding her lovers in sacks. Thinking it full of coal, the affable, jilted Vakula, carries one sack with him when he attempts suicide at the river bank. Then out pops the Devil with a deal... The moral seems to be that the love of your life is worth selling your soul for and this aftertaste and narrative logic is more Gogol than Tchaikovsky, although it was the latter’s own personal favourite of his operas. Initially premičred in 1876 as Vakula the Smith, it took ten years of revision and shortening before Tchaikovsky revived it as Cherevichki in 1886. Despite initial success it never gained a foothold in the repertory, even in Russia. You can almost still sense the composer’s disappointment: it is his cleverest, most idiosyncratic piece that, unlike his other operas, relies less on looking back to Mozart and other western influences and celebrates instead the folk language of his upbringing.

This identity is maybe the opera’s chief problem. On being exposed to the score cold, you could be forgiven for thinking it was by Borodin or Mussorgsky, such is the through composed, national folk element in the musical texture. People also don’t expect comedy from Tchaikovsky, we want despair, obsession and death from his operas, preferably in set pieces in which both fans and detractors like to pigeon hole this much misunderstood composer. The score is almost too clever in its references and changes of tone. In more ways than one, this really is the Cinderella of Tchaikovsky’s output.

One could not wish, however, for a better advocate than Francesca Zambello, on a real return to form after recent disappointments. The Albert Hall’s acoustic was the kiss of death for her gaudy Showboat and she had no interesting perspective to bring to her drizzly, Zeffirelli-lite Carmen but she can sell an unknown work like no other. Through every scene, her love for Cherevichki shines through (it is her second production of the piece) , displaying a sense of humour and unquestioning belief in Gogol’s surreal, spicy world. The praise must be shared with Mikhail Mokrov’s back drop sets, retro in a good way, reviving the dying art of scenic painting and acutely aware of the folk world. The perfectly lit front cloth references Chagall, a future illustrator for Gogol’s Dead Souls, and layer after layer of eerie, folk world visuals is flown in and out, celebrating the magic of old theatrical tricks. The final visuals, as the young couple are sleighed off into the sunset, is of a vast sun, Soviet kitsch in style, a shocking visual clash with previous 19th century designs. Maybe this is the other end of the Devil’s bargain. Gogol doesn’t respond well to the latest, slick theatrical technology and for someone who is young enough not to know anything other than concept productions and updates in the opera house, this comes as a genuine novelty to me. This is a lavish, beautiful rocking horse of a production, a celebration of bygone age and too good for today’s kids.

I do feel, though, that Zambello is better at huge set pieces than probing characters’ detailed emotions. A duet between Vakula and Oxana just dumps them either side of the cottage living room, whereas the large crowd scenes are beautifully handled. Uncertain follow spotting and an eggy change into the fourth act can be blamed on first night nerves, but it is not enough to undermine what is an exquisitely designed and lit show. It is a spectacular test of resources; ballet dancers, Cossack dancers, actors and chorus are all used to maximum effect. You could almost see the childish grin on the audience’s face when the pot bellied wood goblin prances off or a ballet dancing bear joins in.

Musically it was a mixed bag. If 1960’s Bolshoi is your preferred way of singing Tchaikovsky, then this was a very authentic show but I’m still convinced Tchaikovsky responds better to a more western, bel-canto approach. Fortunately this was displayed by Vsevolod Grivnov’s magnificent Vakula. His pinging, pliant tenor was ideal for his charming music, his slightly blank expression and idiotic smock contrasting with the macho men of the village. Vakula, here, is the comic and infinitely more likeable equivalent of Der Freischütz’s feckless, dimwit, Max. He’s no hero but he gets the girl and you do end up on his side.

As the witch, Solokha, Larissa Diadkova was a lot of bosomy fun, a departure from the rather cool demeanour she can have on stage but that glorious organ toned mezzo of hers has frayed now, down to, maybe, too many Gergiev Ring Cycles. Also disappointing was the woolly, strained singing of Mikhailov’s Devil, although he is a fine actor. Vocal glory came from the second big name, Sergei Leiferkus, as his highness, his strangely beefy yet light grained baritone giving real star quality to the St Petersburg scene. Magnificent too was Vladimir Matorin as Chub, a Russian cliché of astonishing bass singing. Changhan Lim was a pretty voiced and hilarious goblin.

Otherwise, one wished for a lighter touch. Olga Guryakova’s Oxana was rather too steely and formidably voiced for the flaky, village beauty and, when Tchaikovsky made demands of her, that voice quickly turned to paint stripper. Polianichko kept things ticking over politely in the pit. Fine playing but this is a score that doesn’t like hanging around and its more Dionysian moments need grabbing by the scruff of the neck. In the end this was not enough to dilute the joy of the visuals and the delirious tale. From the mutterings overheard on the way out, the Tory first wives and other house furniture preferred Onegin or Swan Lake but they liked looking at it for two and a half hours, even if they couldn’t follow the plot. But Cherevichki is closer to the Mighty Boosh, than to Pique Dame or Eugene Onegin and comedy as scatological and modern as this needs a different sort of opera goer, which is why the all embracing marketing for this really was worth the risk.

I don’t want to see the Royal Opera give up on this piece. It must be revived next Christmas as Zambello and Mokrov have created a little charmer, that only needs a starrier, lighter voiced cast, to get the returns queues heaving for next time. In its anarchism, sardonic humour and tone-poem like structure, Cherevichki really is the Nutcracker of Tchaikovsky’s operatic output and it deserves a similar fan base.

Barnaby Rayfield



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