London's Royal Opera has served up an early but dazzling Christmas feast - a treat for both the ears and the eyes. The forgotten fairy tale opera of Tchaikovsky, The Tsarina's Slippers (Cherevichki) is a masterpiece of the first order with entrancing music, fine storytelling, and a big helping of smart fun. With a fanciful staging, a large cast, choruses and ballets, it is a high calorie family holiday evening to remember.
The tale, from Nikolay Gogol's short story, "Christmas Eve," was already a favorite of Tchaikovsky at the age of nine. Gogol's familiarity with Ukrainian village life is clear and the story is filled with lovers, joking villagers, caroling, devils, magic, peccadilloes and food and drink. Gogol's story is about a village smithy, Vakula, who falls hopelessly in love with the town beauty, Oxana. She expects better, of course, and gives him the brush-off, challenging him to bring her the same slippers worn by the Czarina herself - reflecting that this would have been in the time of the young Catherine the Great. The desperate man goes off on his quest, finally enlisting the help of the Devil, who turns out to be an amiable chap.
Vakula is magically transported to the Czarina's palace in St. Petersburg where, after a regal court ballet and some Cossack dancing, his strange plea wins the help of His Highness. Bearing the slippers, he return on Christmas Eve to his village. Most had presumed he was dead and the delight is general. The Devil is waived away and marriage plans are made by the lovers with celebratory music by the villagers and principals.
Composed in 1874, between the composer's ballets Romeo and Juliet and Swan Lake, it was originally titled Vakula the Smith but, not a success, was revised and seen again as Cherevichki - the Ukrainian word for fancy slippers - in 1887. Renamed The Tsarina's Slippers by the ROH, the opera's holidays exposure on BBC television and a subsequent DVD should bring this operatic jewel the wider audience it certainly deserves.
The ballet music was liberally plundered for an earlier Royal Ballet production and it was only fair that the Royal Ballet lend a couple of their leads, Mara Galeazzi and Gary Avis, and six others for the ballet sequences. The unique Cossack dancing, however, could only be entrusted to four gifted professionals of that art.
The First Act has the local witch and mother of Vakula, Solokha, targeted for seduction by the Devil. Their scene is delicious, ribald and funny. Solokha, as sung by noted Russian contralto Larissa Diadkova, seemed to have had this role written for her. Bass Maxim Kikhailov, the Devil, had a few early vocal bumps but soon was fine. With Olga Guryakova's Oxana, there is little of the self-possessed young girl but otherwise her delivery was masterful. A happy surprise is the bright, easy tenor of Vsevolod Grivnov making his house debut as Vakula.
As Chub, Oxana's father, Vladimir Matorin reminds again why Russian basses are a breed apart in power and richness of tone and the veteran Sergei Leiferkus, as His Highness, manages to still make his now-wobbly baritone full of noble authority. With a strong secondary cast, an engaged chorus and the young and talented Russian conductor Alexander Polianichki in pit, the Royal Opera forces delivered the goods in fine form.
Francesca Zambello's staging is filled with naive enchantment. Working with master set designer Mikhail Mokrov and costume designer Tatiana Govinova, they have created a color-filled world of traditional Ukrainian design which suggests the world of the puppet theater that Gogol loved as a child.
With the eight performances through December 8 already sold out, BBC Radio 3 - also available also on the internet - broadcast the Dec. 5 performance. Scheduling for the televised version has not yet been finalized for the holiday season but worth watching for as would be the DVD that will follow. This opera is said to be the composers favorite but performances, even in Russia, are scarse. Is there more buried opera treasure from Tchaikovsky sleeping on shelves? At least this one is well awake now.
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All photos by Bill Cooper.