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SEEN AND HEARD INTERVIEW
Alexander Polianichko - Picture Catriona Bass
November 20th will witness the opening of the Royal
Opera’s first ever production of Tchaikovsky’s Cherevichki (rendered here, in English, as ‘The Tsarina’s Slippers’). Alexander Polianichko will conduct an almost entirely Russian cast, directed by Francesca Zambello. Mr Polianichko was kind enough to speak to me about work and production. I started by asking him how the rehearsals were going.
AP: Fantastic! They’re really great. Today, I think, was the second, yes the second, stage rehearsal, and we have already done half of the opera. We have been working hard on the balances, because, when you have the scenery, you have to remember that it can reflect sound and that the orchestra always prefers to play loudly...! It is a big orchestra, of course, Tchaikovsky’s orchestra: opera in the grand style.
MB: How many strings are you using?
AP: A minimum of six desks of first violins, down to four or maybe five double basses. It’s a big sound.
MB: This is the first time Cherevichki [The Tsarina’s Slippers] has been done at Covent Garden.
AP: It’s not strange, because in Russia, it is not very popular as well. You know the recordings of Cherevichki [The Tsarina’s Slippers]? One of them, from the Bolshoi Theatre, is from 1947/48, under [Alexander] Melik-Pashaev. There is a later one from [Vladimir] Fedoseyev. And the recordings sound totally different, that one thirty or thirty-five years later. More recently, [Gennadi] Roshdestvensky recorded it in 2000.
MB: On Chandos?
AP: Yes, that’s right. The situation is very different from Onegin or The Queen of Spades. If people hear those, they can discuss whether the tempi are slow or fast, but in this case, it is such an unusual work, they don’t know.
MB: Which gives you a certain freedom, I suppose. There are fewer expectations; there is no real performing tradition.
AP: Yes, we can follow the types of voices we have, the characters on stage. What is really difficult to do is to make people realise that this is comedy. When you hear a Rossini overture, you know this is going to be comicIn this opera, so many moments do not sound comic; they sound desperate.
MB: There is sadness?
AP: Yes, it’s interesting, but it is part of the score. At the ends of the second and fourth acts in the score – though we are performing it just in two acts – there are beautiful scenes, these characters, this teacher, this is really comic. We need to show this, to make it funny.
MB: Have you discussed that with the director?
AP: Yes, Francesca realises this. And the costumes too, they really help with this. And I have to find a way through the music to show the comic side, to show the orchestra this.
MB: And to show the audience that the players are enjoying themselves.
AP: Of course: that’s very important. But they need to sound beautiful, and support the voices; they need to be light enough to do that.
MB: This all, I suppose, stands quite distinct from the ideas many people have of Tchaikovsky: sadness and tragedy. They are used to the symphonies, Onegin, and so on, and this will show another side to him, at least in part.
AP: Destiny, they know from the symphonies.
MB: Fate, which is always there, which suffocates.
AP: You know how important that is in the symphonies. It is always there. Perhaps you need to kill somebody or yourself. Lensky should die; Hermann should die...
MB: Everyone should die. It would be better if they had never been born – just as in Greek tragedy.
AP: Yes, exactly. And Mazeppa should die too. This is different, though, and so new to everyone. I was looking in a very big dictionary in the Covent Garden shop, there are more than a thousand operas, only three from Tchaikovsky are listed: Eugene Onegin, The Queen of Spades, Mazeppa, and that's it. All these operas, the history of productions, but only three by Tchaikovsky, no Cherevichki [The Tsarina’s Slippers]] at all, or operas like The Maid of Orleans. Cherevichki [The Tsarina’s Slippers] is a fantastic opera, though, and Tchaikovsky started his conductor’s career with it. It was his first ever conducting experience.
MB: And the father of someone rather famous took part in that performance, didn’t he? Fyodor Stravinsky, Igor’s father, as His Highness, the minister.
AP: That’s right. Historically, these first casts, it can be very strange: when Onegin was first performed, we don’t know who everyone was. We know that four professors from the Moscow Conservatory were in the orchestra, but not all the singers. And it was an extremely small orchestra then, a student production really. But in general, he knew what he wanted, and he had larger orchestras in the big theatres.
MB: The work itself, have you conducted it elsewhere?
AP: No, it is my first time. Unfortunately, even in Russia, it is not very often done. There is only one production, I think, at the moment, in Moscow, which I tried to see, but I haven’t been able to yet.
MB: Is that at the Bolshoi?
AP: No, not even there.
MB: It’s the sort of thing you might have thought Gergiev would have got round to doing, but even he hasn’t then?
AP: No, though he does so much: all repertoire, all composers. He does Glinka and everything onwards.
MB: Even Rubinstein’s The Demon recently, which he brought to London with the Mariinsky, though I couldn’t go. Going back to Cherevichki [The Tsarina’s Slippers], there is ballet too, of course, so this is quite a rare opportunity for the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera to perform together.
AP: Which is quite strange for me, because this is how it ought to be; there is a beautiful ballet and a beautiful orchestra, and they should go together. Tchaikovsky wrote some numbers especially for the ballet, but this is not unique. There is a gopak in Mazeppa; the polonaise is a dance too, of course.
MB: As in Onegin.
AP: Yes. He creates dances in all of his operas; so much of his music is dance.
MB: Even in the symphonies, those waltzes.
AP: Exactly. It is such a pleasure here to see beautiful dancing and the choreography is wonderful, really interesting. What is really interesting for me is that we have started to use not only the music written for dance but some of the other music too.
MB: If you have the ballet dancers, you want to use them.
AP: Of course. And this is very typical of Russian operas. You know [Rimsky-Korsakov’s] Sadko? That sort of thing: it is fantastic.
MB: Like The Tale of Tsar Saltan, which the Mariinsky brought a little while ago to Sadler’s Wells.
AP: And there all of these operas by Rimsky-Korsakov. I remember a story I heard about Solti. Somebody asked him about which operas he had conducted, what he wanted to conduct, and he said that he had only scratched the surface. You go to the dictionaries, and there are hundreds and hundreds of operas, thousands and thousands, all in the libraries, covered in dust, like that of the Mariinsky Theatre. Many of these works, commissioned by the Mariinsky, they have only been performed one. Now we wait for them to be rediscovered.
MB: And rediscovery can be such an extraordinary thing, can’t it?
AP: Very exciting.
MB: When one thinks that Monteverdi’s operas had to wait three centuries to be performed once again – let alone those that have been lost, though who knows whether they might turn up in the libraries? And these are some of the greatest operas in the entire repertoire.
AP: That’s true. And I really enjoy Baroque music. I have a lot of experience with this music, in Russia, and here, with the English Chamber Orchestra and the Irish Chamber Orchestra. But the style: it has changed so much. If you go to a recording by Furtwängler, with nine desks of first violins, six desks of double basses in a Handel concerto grosso, that sounds wonderful. Now we hear people play on old instruments, with four desks of violins; it sounds completely different. But I very much enjoy this music; for me it seems to speak to the soul. Like all music, of course. Sometimes you can hear just a phrase [he sings a descending minor third] and everyone knows that it is sad. There is no explaining.
MB: Just feeling?
AP: Yes, just feeling. In music, all of us, all over the world, are in the same place. And the notes, whoever is playing them, are in the same place in the score, of course. This brings us together. It is an international language.
[Technical incompetence on my part ensured that two or three minutes went unrecorded but, during this time, we returned to Russia, first to Gogol, his story Christmas Eve being the source both for Cherevichki [The Tsarina’s Slippers] itself, and as Mr Polianichko pointed out, Rimsky Korsakov’s Christmas Eve too, a subject to which we returned later on.]
AP: Ah, now the tape will have missed how to make the soup I told you about, the soup in the opera: it needs everything you can throw into it, dried fruit, apples, lots of vodka, and then you put it into the oven, keep it in a warm place.
MB: What about the women in the opera? Many people have said that Tchaikovsky has a rather one-sided view of female characters.
AP: Yes, but you need to remember, when all these people come up to Solokha, she is not a real witch to them, but she is a witch. There are many different characters in this opera, like the schoolteacher, and all of them like to be as close to her as possible, because you can feel a relationship between her and all of them. The orchestra is such an important voice; you can feel that someone is really in love. It is a magical score. We have to follow the characters and find the right expression for them.
MB: It sounds from what you have said as though the rehearsals are going very well.
AP: Yes, we have had two very enjoyable weeks; everyone has worked very hard. And now, Francesca continues her work after every rehearsal. She makes many notes, concerning how things can be made better, and so on.
MB: In something like this, you will never be finished. There will always be alterations, improvements, changes to make things fresh.
AP: Very much. If there are ten performances, then the best will be the eleventh. It’s always better, better, better, better ... Every time we take the stage, there are new details to bring out.
MB: The experience of the earlier performances comes into the later ones, and the desire to do something new.
AP: Yes, of course. You try to collect all the pieces of information, all the details, to concentrate on the characters, on beautiful singing, because there are so many wonderful arias. And what’s really interesting – again this is in the Russian tradition – is that there is joy and sorrow, sadness.
MB: Two sides of the same coin?
AP: One could not exist without the other. You can’t feel joy if you don’t feel sorrow. The end of this opera, act number four, it is just crying. Solokha and Oxana are sure that Vakula is dead. Mother and daughter: they are both in distress. The sadness that you hear in all Russian opera, and also the joy; think of Borodin’s Prince Igor. Mussorgsky too.
MB: Perhaps a little less of the joy in Mussorgsky?
AP: Mussorgsky was a genius. He used this contrast better than anybody. If you remember Boris Godunov, we have just heard a song about a mosquito [the ‘Song of the Gnat’] and suddenly – Boris Godunov...
MB: A musical shadow falls, as well as that of the character on stage.
AP: Exactly. Mussorgsky was a real genius. You know, he was also setting Gogol, in Sorochintskï Fair. It’s the same story, written in 1832. He was born in 1809 and was just 23. And everybody knew this: it was so popular. Rimsky-Korsakov: his Christmas Eve, from the same place. And I’ll tell you what the difference is between Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky used a librettist; his is written by [Yakov] Polonsky, and it is written in Russian. But Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky create their own librettos and use the original text. Polonsky’s libretto is in general, Russian, with just a few sentences from the original text, just a few words. And it’s a pity, because you lose some of the meaning of these words. It’s not all ‘correct’ Russian pronunciation, because south of Russia, a ‘g’ sound does not exist; it is always ‘h’. It is like in Bayreuth, in the south of Germany, it is very different from the north. The same in Czech: Janáček’s pronunciation.
MB: Very different in Moravia from in Prague.
AP: Yes, yes. So the sounds are very different, and this can be another comic side to the opera.
MB: Rather like the Viennese dialect in Rosenkavalier?
AP: Yes, that’s right. This is another thing to bring out. Of course you want to show the beauty of the score, but there are so many things to consider.
MB: The very essence of opera.
On which note, I thanked Mr Polianichko very much for his time and said how much I was looking forward to the first night, on 20 November.
For further details on the Royal Opera’s production of The Tsarina’s Slippers, and to book, click
Pictures of stage backcloths © Mikhail Mokrov