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Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Slippers, (also known as ‘Cherevichki’). opera in 4 Acts
Vakula, Konstantin Lissovsky (ten); Oksana, Nina Formina (sop); Solokha the witch, Lyudmilla Simonova (m. sop); Bess the devil, Oleg Klenov (bar); Tchub, Aleksey Krivchena (ten)
Grand Choir of the USSR Radio and TV
Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio/Vladimir Fedoseyev
Recorded 1974. No venue given
Silver Edition
RELIEF CR 991054 [2CDs: 73.31+75.34]

Tchaikovsky was constantly drawn to try his hand at opera, particularly after seeing Carmen in Paris in 1876 and, later the same year, Wagner at Bayreuth. Earlier in the decade he had worked on an opera called Undine (or Ondine) and when it was rejected by St. Petersburg he destroyed much of it, keeping only some of the best music for re-use. He certainly re-worked much of what he had kept in ‘Vakula the Smith’ of 1876, when his foreign experiences had given him a firmer grasp of the operatic genre. That work was said to contain well written lyrical love duets and dance music; it was based on Gogol’s fairy tale ‘The Night before Christmas’. However, it was recognised as a failure by the ever self-critical composer. The music remained dear to him and he re-worked the whole as ‘Cherevichki’ (The Little Shoes) and conducted its premiere in Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre in December 1886.

In the opera’s adaptation of Gogol’s fairy tale poem, the witch Solokha is approached by the amorous devil who flies off to steal the moon and revenge himself on her son, Vakula, who has made an ugly painting of him. This hinders Vakula who is making his way to court Oksana. Oksana’s drunken father and his friend arrive and are thrown out by Vakula to Oksana’s annoyance. The drunken pair, and the devil, end up in sacks behind the stove. They are carried out by Vakula who catches the devil by the tail, and via the sign of the cross, holds him in his power. Vakula forces the devil to fly the pair to St. Petersburg to obtain a pair of ‘Cherevichki’ (Royal Slippers) that Oksana has demanded in return for her marriage to him. There is of course much more to the plot than the foregoing and the booklet gives a very good synopsis, with occasional track references, albeit that the English translation is sometimes rather idiosyncratic.

Listening to this well cast and sung performance, I couldn’t help regretting that Tchaikovsky’s genius for melody that infects, and inflects, his symphonies, concertos and ballets, to a great extent eluded him in his operatic works. For much of the time the music is simply supporting the singers acting out their part in the fairy tale. The music does not convey the story, or the evolution of the characters, in the way contemporaneous works by Verdi and Wagner, for example, do, although, as mentioned, there is good invention in the dance music and love songs. Given the above, it is vital to sustain interest so that the singers can convey the story, via their vocal skills, and carry the drama forward. In these respects this recording is very fortunate in both its principal singers and those in the comprimario parts. The young lovers, Oksana and Vakula are outstanding. Nina Formina, as Oksana, has a pure lyric voice with good extension at both ends of its range, allied to good vocal colour, expression and elegant phrasing. These facets are the perfect recipe for conveying the varying demands of the part from melancholy (CD1 tr.4), to the teasing of Vacula (CD 1 trs. 7-8). As her suitor Vakula, Konstantin Lissovsky has a virile, clear, open-toned, lyric tenor voice. He exhibits good phrasing and a varied range of expression as exemplified by his reproaching of Oksana (CD2 tr.3). He also impresses in the scene where he takes the devil by the tail in the first scene of Act 3 (CD2 tr.7). As the devil the baritone Oleg Klenov (1932-1997) is most impressive. His excellent diction, powerful expressive voice and wide palette of colour and range combine to give a convincing and involving portrayal. CD 1 trs.2-3 conveys a sample of his fine dramatic and vocal skills. Lyudmilla Simonova as the witch is shown as a soprano. For my money she is a dramatic mezzo, try CD1 trs.2 and 10. However, denoted register matters little when pitted against her characterisation of a very demanding role that, above all, must not be bland if the drama and moods of the opera are to be conveyed. In this latter respect, as in the other works in this series, the chorus and orchestra have vital parts to play. Whilst the chorus play a fulsome part, CD 2 tr. 2 and elsewhere, and the orchestra is vibrant in the dance music, there are times when I wished the conductor would vary the dynamics more. The orchestra can sound relentless and lacking in rhythmic vitality. Or is that lack more Tchaikovsky’s than that of the conductor? Mea culpa for I have no comparison.

The analogue recording is clear and open with excellent dynamic range. In my review of Rimsky’s ‘May Night’, in this series (elsewhere on this site) I set out detailed criticisms of the layout and presentation of information in the booklet and on the inner face of the folding slipcase. Much the same criticisms apply here with the libretto given in Cyrillic script Russian broken only by track numbers, these having a very brief description in English and Act indications. However, as mentioned, the synopsis is good and the artist profiles are in English and German.

Whilst this little known work does not draw the best of uniform melodic invention from Tchaikovsky, this performance is convincing. It is as good as we are likely to get on record. It is a very welcome addition to an all too slow expansion, in the catalogue, of Russian operatic works readily available outside that country. I commend it to all those interested in the genre and the composer’s works.

Robert J Farr

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