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Tchaikovsky, Cherevichki, Garsington Opera, 26th June 2004 (H-T W)


This season, and I assume, by pure coincidence, not only the Grange Park Opera, but also Garsington Opera came up with a totally unknown work by Tchaikovsky. It happened to be the first professional production in the UK of "Cherevichki", the composer’s Comic-fantastic opera in four acts to a libretto by Yakov Polonsky after Nikolai Gogol’s "Christmas Eve", sung in Russian.

"Tchaikovsky had read Gogol’s short story when he was only nine, and this tale of the love of the young smith, Vakula, for the village beauty, Oksana, had captivated him. All is set in a Ukrainian village in which live not only humans but a devil and a witch; there are funny, sometimes creepy situations aplenty; there is an aerial flight to St.Petersburg, a meeting with the empress herself who sorts everything out – and, of course, a happy ending", so writes David Brown in his informative notes in the program book.

In 1872, a competition to set this particular libretto to music gave Tchaikovsky the impulse to compose "Vakula Kusnez" (Vakula the Smith), its original title. Of course, he won the competition and the opera had its premiere at the Marinsky Theatre in St.Petersburg on the 6th December 1876. It had not been the success he had hoped for despite being revived for three consecutive years. But as this opera was exceptionally close to Tchaikovsky’s heart, he revised it considerably in 1885 and renamed it "Cherevichki" (after the high-heeled leather boots worn by Ukrainian women, but in this case also the beautiful shoes worn by the empress). The premiere, conducted by the composer himself, took place at the Marinsky on the 31st January 1887  - again without making any real impact.  Tchaikovsky wrote: "For the moment the opera arouses interest rather than affection. I think that "Cherevichki", like "Onegin", will be performed without much audience clamour – but that, little by little, people will come to love it." It sadly never happened, even if until his death he regarded this opera as his best. Reasons are many. The audience in St.Petersburg may not have been too happy about being confronted with a stage entirely filled with commoners – even the short figurant scene of the empress has no grandeur. Also, Tchaikovsky composed a Russian comic opera on a grand scale which avoids any real drama. Further, the opera is not that well structured; the first two acts are extremely long and contain a lot of fully orchestrated dialogues, while in the second half everything comes to a quick and happy conclusion.

The story is simple, but quite complex in detail. The local devil is furious how Vakula had portrayed him; he became the laughingstock for all the other devils and sets out for revenge. Together with Vakula´s mother Solokha, who is not only a witch, but also very much in demand with some of the elders in the village, they create complete darkness, let the moon disappear and come up with a huge snowstorm. They hope, to interrupt every ones normal business but do not succeed. Still, Vakula visits his adored Oksana who tells him that she will only marry him if he brings her the beautiful cherevichki the empress wears. Others find their usual way to the local inn, while the devil tries to make love to Solokha only to be interrupted by various elders, who knock on her door with the same intention. The devil and all the others hide in sacks; finally, her son Vakula arrives in a depressed mood, but she sends him home. Thinking that one of the sacks contains all his tools he carries one of them with him. Suicide seems the only solution for him. Suddenly to his surprise, the devil jumps out of his sack. With the help of a cross in his jacket Vakula wins power over the devil and forces him, to bring him to St.Petersburg and to make sure that he receives the cherevichki of the empress. Everything works out well and they rush back to their village for a sumptuous wedding.

Compared to The Grange and to Glyndebourne, both of which can perform in a purpose built opera house, Garsington has certain disadvantages. The enterprise of Leonard Ingrams to produce opera on the terrace of his Jacobean mansion means in fact open-air theatre, mainly in daylight and in front of an artificial, but weatherproof auditorium. The pit is partially hidden underneath the first rows and with fifty-four players the orchestra is slightly smaller than at The Grange. It can work well, as previous productions have demonstrated. In this case, more or less everything went wrong, the worst being the balance between the pit and the stage. "Cherevichki" is a comic opera, which needs light and lyrical voices and a chorus kept under strict control. Instead, the audience was mainly confronted with larger voices and a chorus fighting for its existence; it succeeded only in killing off the entire orchestra. Most of the evening I could not hear anything of Tchaikovsky’s delicate orchestration or of his passionate music. Some of it may have had to do with the wind direction, which can blow the sound underneath the auditorium and make the voices sound even louder.


Elgar Howarth is an extremely experienced conductor, especially in Garsington, where he has conducted many successes. This time, the imbalances merely seemed frustrating. The production by Olivia Fuchs turned out to be mainly silly. She tried to evoke a kind of puppet theatre, which made a farce out of most parts. What should and could have been fun looked cramped and implausible. None of the folkloristic colours came across and many scenes turned into tasteless, even kitschy caricatures – the magic was missing. I realised the effort, but the outcome was quite often painful.  "Cherevichki" deserves better and should be taken on by the Royal Opera. The only fascinating experience for me had been to realise how much of this music lives on in the Tchaikovsky arrangement K.H.Stolze created for the full-length ballet "Eugene Onegin" by John Cranko.

Hans-Theodor Wohlfahrt

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