Tchaikovsky: Cherevichki (Opus Arte) ***
Last Christmas, the Royal Opera staged Tchaikovsky’s Cherevichki as its seasonal ‘family show’; a curious piece of marketing as I doubt that the opera would necessarily appeal to children. Its staging brought forth a touch of the Ebenezers among the London critics, but I readily succumbed to its naïve charm. Now released on DVD in time for this Christmas, it’s time to re-evaluate the production’s hits and misses.
The opera has a convoluted history. Based on Gogol’s story Christmas Eve, it began life as Vakula the Smith, but was revised by Tchaikovsky a decade later, using much the same thematic material. Cherevichki, translated variously as The Little Boots or The Slippers has also gone under the title The Caprices of Oxana. The Royal Opera dubbed it The Tsarina’s Slippers. Tchaikovsky held the opera in much affection, as do the two women behind this production. Elaine Padmore, Director of the Royal Opera, and Francesca Zambello had collaborated on the opera for the 1993 Wexford Festival and relished the opportunity, with a bigger budget, to present it on a lavish scale to a wider audience.
The plot is a slight one. The Devil visits Solokha, witch and mother of Vakula, the village blacksmith. He has been mocked by Vakula, who painted an image of him on the side of the church, and resolves to take his revenge by obstructing the lad’s love-life. Vakula loves Oxana, but she plays hard to get, challenging him to bring her a pair of the Tsarina’s slippers before she’ll agree to marry him. Vakula, by a stroke of fortune, catches the Devil by the tail and forces him to fly to Catherine’s Court in St Petersburg, where Vakula is awarded the slippers (with remarkable ease) before returning to claim his bride, who declares she’d have married him anyway. Fickle woman!
Mikhail Mokrov’s cartoon, cardboard cut-out sets and Tatiana Noginova’s primary-coloured costumes are immediately engaging. The whole production has a low-tech simplicity, with sets wheeled around by little devils, which also create paper snowstorms. Some scenes drag, noticeably where Solokha ‘entertains’ four suitors, including the Devil, who hide in sacks to avoid detection. It all gets rather tedious, a bit like Carry on Cossacks, and isn’t remotely funny.
Olga Guryakova sings the role of the capricious Oxana. Although still relatively young, her soprano’s past its best and her top is shrill. (I was luckier to catch Viktoria Yastrebova later in the run.) Bolshoi tenor Vsevolod Grivnov presents a winning Vakula, not an heroic-sounding voice, but hugely likeable. His Act 3 solo is the emotional heart of the opera and is sincerely sung. Maxim Mikhailov’s tail-twirling Devil wasn’t vocally successful in the theatre, where he barely projected past the Stalls Circle, yet the knob-twiddlers at Opus Arte have successfully improved matters. Even so, Vladimir Matorin, the gigantic bass singing Oxana’s father, would have been better cast as the Devil. Larissa Diadkova has enormous fun in the comic role of Solokha and Sergei Leiferkus, now somewhat over-parted at the top of his range, revels in his cameo as ‘His Highness’ Prince Potemkin.
Much of the music has the melodic lilt one expects from Tchaikovsky and the ‘big tune’ in the Overture is infectiously catchy. I defy you to banish it from your head for days after first hearing it! It reoccurs in the final chorus and is played again at the curtain-calls. This seems to be a tradition with the piece: it’s exactly what happens on Gennady Rozhdestvensky’s live audio recording from Cagliari. The ROH Orchestra, which was immersed in Tchaikovsky last winter, plays well under Alexander Polianichko, although his reading of the score isn’t as light or nuanced as Rozhdestvensky’s.
There is a considerable dance element in the opera, composed before any of Tchaikovsky’s ballets. The Royal Ballet makes a strong contribution as rusalki in a lakeside scene, where Vakula contemplates suicide, and in a grand polonaise at the Court. Four traditional Cossack dancers also wow the audience and there’s a dancing bear thrown in for good measure.
Despite the production’s shortcomings, even the hardened critic’s heart should be raised by Cherevichki, especially after the final chorus. I should be quite delighted to find this DVD in my Christmas stocking, so if you’ve yet to complete that letter to Santa, it makes a worthy additional request.
The extras included on the DVD are just powder-puffs for the production, although the ‘Staging Gogol’ short was interesting. Sound quality is superb, as one expects from Opus Arte.
Productions of Cherevichki are rare (it will be interesting to see of the Royal Opera revives this one soon, given the critical mauling it received) so DVD could well be the only realistic chance of seeing it. I hope opera companies are not deterred from exploring other lesser-known Tchaikovsky… The Oprichnik, anyone?
Tchaikovsky: Cherevichki – Alexander Polianichko/ Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (Opus Arte OA 1037 D)
Gennady Rozhdestvensky/ Orchestra del Teatro Lirico di Cagliari (Dynamic, 3 discs) CDS 287/1-3 (2000)
This review originally appeared in IRR.