Folk music pervades the whole of Tchaikovsky's score for Cherevichki, being performed by The Royal Opera for the first time this month under the title of The Tsarina's Slippers, so it's logical that Francesca Zambello's staging takes its cue from the iconography of Russian folklore.
Mikahil Mokrov's backcloths show stylised versions of scenes such as a Russian town and palace, and when Vakula the Blacksmith rides on the Devil's back to go and acquire the footwear of the opera's title for his true love Oxana, cut-out clouds descend while a gaudy painting of the Devil flies past.
In theory it ought to work, and I was hugely looking forward to seeing this piece fully staged, only having experienced it on record before. (It's previously enjoyed a staging at the Wexford Festival, also directed by Zambello, when the festival was curated by Elaine Padmore, currently The Royal Opera's Director of Opera.) It has lots going for it: a Tchaikovsky score sandwiched between Romeo and Juliet and Swan Lakein both compositional chronology and style, and a libretto based on the great Gogol's Christmas Eve. The first scene of the second act mirrors the famous moment in Mozart's Figaro when the male characters hide behind the furniture in Susanna's bedroom – a reference that can't have been missed on Tchaikovsky, a big Mozart fan – and there's a large dance scene in the state ballroom, which looks towards the finest moments in Onegin and Sleeping Beauty.
And yet, somehow it lacks the brilliance of either of those works. The orchestral writing is equally as deft and vibrant, and the score is packed with colour, but there are only a couple of outstanding vocal numbers. Admittedly, those are great moments indeed – Vakula's aria and the duet for Oxana and Solokha come to mind – but they're offset by a lot of sprawling recitative that doesn't feature the same individual style of the vocal writing in Onegin.
Then, too, we're not helped that this staging resembles the twee-looking style of theatre that Russian opera companies are actually trying to get themselves away from nowadays. I'd love to see the piece staged in the style of Sir Peter Wright's Royal Ballet Nutcracker – a Victorian chocolate-box version of Christmas, I know, but it ticks the boxes every time. What's needed is something more lavish, but instead this production at times resembles the touring productions brought over by the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi that never seem up to scratch by comparison with the newer productions in The Royal Opera's repertory.
Sadly, this effect is only intensified by a largely all-Russian cast, which one would've expected to be a positive point. Unfortunately, only two of these are truly world-class in artistry – Larissa Diadkova (Solokha, the witch) and Sergei Leiferkus (His Highness) – and the two of them stood out for their much greater command of the stage and music, even if the big set piece for His Highness lies just a fraction too high for Leiferkus' still-incisive baritone nowadays. Maxim Mikhailov cracked badly at one point and was surprisingly low-key as The Devil, never producing the darkness of tone one might expect from a Satan figure, though it has to be said he wasn't helped by the comical appearance he was given through his costume and make-up.
The main couple, Oxana and Vakula, were charmingly played and sung by Olga Guryakova and Vsevolod Grivnov. However, the vocal production at the top of Guryakova's range is very tight and uncomfortable, while Grivnov had some intonation issues, as well as a limited expressive range as an actor. The supporting cast was mostly solid rather than outstanding, but again I felt that Vladimir Matorin's Chub, John Upperton's Panas and Alexander Vassilev's Pan Golova were hindered by the cliché'd costumes.
Oddly, it all went up a notch for me after the interval with the arrival of the dancers. Royal Ballet stars Mara Galeazzi and Gary Avis performed exquisitely, giving a demonstration of what world-class performances look like, and both the corps de ballet and the contrasting Cossack dancers seemed a lot more at home in the production: it was as if they had enough inside them to bring nuance and feeling to the piece, even when the limitations of the scenery were letting everyone down. Somehow, too, it just seemed so right to have dancing against Tchaikovsky's ultra-gestural music.
Then again, the whole of the scene at the royal court engaged me far more, and from there on the evening took off.
It was a tad late, however, and in spite of the excellent performance from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under an enthusiastic Alexander Polianichko, I don't think this production will be back for too many future revivals. A shame, because there was enough in the performance to show the potential of the work itself.
Photo credits: Bill Cooper