Tchaikovsky: Cherevichki (The Tsarina’s Slippers)

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COMPOSERS: Tchaikovsky
LABELS: Opus Arte
WORKS: Cherevichki (The Tsarina’s Slippers)
PERFORMER: Olga Guryakova, Vsevolod Grivnov, Larissa Diadkova, Vladimir Matorin, Maxim Mikhailov; Dancers of the Royal Ballet; Royal Opera Dancers, Chorus & Orchestra/Alexander Polianichko; dir. Francesca Zambello (London, 2009) Opus Arte
CATALOGUE NO: OA 1037 D

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Gogol’s Ukrainian folk tale Christmas Eve, in which the blacksmith Vakula harnesses the Devil to fetch his girlfriend an impossible present, inspired two operas much fêted but rarely performed – Rimsky-Korsakov’s, similarly named, and Tchaikovsky’s Cherevichki, more correctly ‘fashion boots’ but renamed by the Royal Opera House The Tsarina’s Slippers

Covent Garden’s 2009 staging by Francesca Zambello makes for a wonderful DVD. Its designs by children’s illustrator Mikhail Mokrov recall Maurice Sendak tinged with Edward Gorey. They positively glow with snowy Russian colour and charm, especially on Blu-ray. Musically, though, it doesn’t dispel some doubts about the work itself.

The cast are fine performers, but vocally somewhat variable. The soprano Olga Guryakova, a charming Oxana (Vakula’s girlfriend), sings with old-fashioned Slavic vibrato. As the lusty witch Solokha, Larissa Diadkova’s rich mezzo has thinned, and Maxim Mikhailov’s Devil also sounds hoarse, though they’re hilarious performers.

Distinctly better are Vsevolod Grivnov’s Vakula, heroic if slightly harsh, and Vladimir Matorin’s jolly Cossack, Chub, with fine lesser roles, including baritone Sergei Leiferkus as ‘His Highness’ – here Prince Potemkin – and a crisp if slightly undersized chorus. Conductor Alexander Polianichko makes an affectionate case for the score, without quite overcoming weaknesses that also hindered the original 1876 version of the opera (then titled Vakula the Smith).

In the folky realms favoured by Rimsky and his colleagues in the ‘Mighty Handful’, the urbane Tchaikovsky becomes rather earthbound. He’s always pleasantly melodic, but often a bit anodyne, with some verbose, sagging scenes, notably Oxana’s interminable teasing, which younger viewers may chafe at.

His limitations are more apparent next to Christmas Eve, staged to great success at ENO in 1988. Rimsky is melodically far more adventurous and atmospheric, making more of the tale’s paganism and transcendent mysticism, his choral koliadki (carols) gloriously soaring where Tchaikovsky’s are merely charming. Moreover, while Tchaikovsky is amusing, Rimsky is actually funny.

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One can’t help thinking it would be good to have Christmas Eve staged in these gorgeous sets – and it could be. Meanwhile, if not a total success, Cherevichki shouldn’t be missed. Michael Scott Rohan