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Piotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Cherevichki (The Tsarina’s Slippers), Op.4 (1887)
Solokha: Larissa Diadkova (mezzo)
The Devil: Maxim Mikhailov (bass)
Chub: Vladimir Matorin (bass)
Panas: John Upperton (tenor)
Oxana: Olga Guryakova (soprano)
Vakula: Vsevolod Grivnov (tenor)
Pan Golova: Alexander Vassiliev (bass)
The Schoolmaster: Viacheslav Voynarovskiy (tenor)
Odarka: Olga Sabadoch
Wood Goblin: Changhan Lim (bass)
Echo: Andrew Macnair
His Highness: Sergei Leiferkus (bass)
Master of Ceremonies: Jeremy White (bass)
Principal Dancers: Mara Galeazzi and Gary Avis
Dancers of the Royal Ballet
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Alexander Polianichko
Director: Francesca Zambello
Choreography: Alastair Marriott
rec. live Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 23 and 28 November 2009
Video format 16:9. Stereo 2.0 and DTS 5.1 surround sound. Region code: all regions.
Subtitles in English, French, German and Spanish.
Extra features: Introducing Cherevichki by Francesca Zambello; Cast and Characters; Staging Gogol’s world
Also available on Blu-ray OABD7073D.
OPUS ARTE OA1037D [DVD: 155:00]

Experience Classicsonline

The Nutcracker has long been traditional Christmas fare, but now it has a rival in the form of another Tchaikovsky bonne bouche, recorded last year at Covent Garden. It may not be a masterpiece like Nutcracker, but it certainly shares its charm, though it may be rather over-long to engage the interest of children.

Though it has been recorded before (Rozhdestvensky, live, Dynamic CDS287, 3 CDs), I hadn’t seen or heard Cherevichki in full, though I did catch the end of a performance broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Christmas Eve some years ago. You can listen to the Dynamic recording on the Naxos Music Library if you’re a subscriber, or download it from classicsonline for £7.99, good value when the parent CDs cost around £35. That said, I strongly recommend purchasing the DVD or blu-ray recording for a visual as well as an aural feast. It’s the spectacle, especially in the many dance episodes, which makes the DVD so successful. In any case the DVD, at around £20, with the Blu-ray at around £23, is on sale for less than the CD set.

The plot, expanded from a short story by Gogol, concerns the attempt by the Smith Vakula to satisfy his girlfriend Oxana’s casual remark that she will marry him the moment that he brings her a pair of Cherevichki – here translated as the Czarina’s slippers, but really a pair of decorative court shoes. Vakula’s mother just happens to have the Devil all bagged up in a large sack – she’s a witch, but don’t ask for the details. In fact, the episode in which the Devil comes to be bagged up with the rest of Solokha’s lovers is as tedious as some of the more routine silent-film imitations of the Keystone Cops. With the Devil’s assistance Vakula obtains the desired footwear and returns triumphant, just in time to give them as a present and to receive the blessing of her father and Oxana’s consent – she’d have married him anyway! Rimsky-Korsakov employed the same story as the plot of his opera, Christmas Eve (review), the 29-minute orchestral suite from which is well-known - try Neeme Järvi’s 2-for-1 set of Rimsky-Korsakov Orchestral Suites on Chandos CHAN10369(2)X (review) or Kees Bakels on BIS-CD-1577 (review). There’s also Tjeknavorian on Brilliant Classics 99934 (review) – originally issued on ASV.

Tchaikovsky’s first attempt, entitled Vakula the Smith, was begun in 1874. Though the first performance in 1876 was a success, interest soon faded and Tchaikovsky decided to withdraw the work, returning for a thorough rewrite and a new title in 1886. Once again, in 1887, it was a success but it again faded from even the Russian repertoire. In the UK it was revived at the Garsington Festival in 2004 (review), but it had to wait until 2009 for a large-scale production. Like Francesco Zambello, who was directing it for the second time at Covent Garden, I cannot for the life of me understand why it has been so neglected.

Even at Covent Garden the work was presented in truncated form – a simple comparison of the running time of the DVD with that of the Dynamic CDs reveals a discrepancy of around 20 minutes. The omissions have been the subject of extensive discussion and considerable regret among Tchaikovsky specialists, but I can’t count myself as one of their number and I don’t believe that most general music-lovers will miss the omitted sections any more than I did.

This production concentrates on the visual and very largely succeeds. The set has been aptly compared to a pop-up storybook or a Disney cartoon and that’s surely the right area for us to be directed in a performance of this work. To a sophisticated St Petersburg or Moscow audience the ways of Ukrainian peasants no doubt seemed comic and quaint and that’s exactly how they’re portrayed here. To add to this story-book lack of sophistication, many of the set changes are carried out by minor devils.

Even setting aside the sci-fi ride to Petersburg on the Devil’s tail, the idea of obtaining the slippers is comic-book in its absurdity: any Ukrainian peasant in baggy pantaloons who tried to obtain entry to the palace of Catherine the Great on Christmas Eve would have received pretty short shrift, let alone one who tried to obtain a pair of her shoes from ‘his Highness’, a thinly disguised Prince Potemkin. Pantomime spectacle is required to persuade us willingly to suspend our disbelief.

There is indeed spectacle in plenty here, with opportunities for the Royal Opera Ballet to deliver the goods in the peasants’ dancing at the end of the first half, as water sprites and woodland spirits at the opening of the second half, in the Russian and Cossack dances at the Petersburg court and in the final jollification where the court dancers, accompanied by a dancing bear, miraculously reappear to join the festivities in the Ukrainian village. The whole ends in a riot of dance and rejoicing, with the betrothed pair punted around the stage in a giant shoe-sleigh. Tchaikovsky the future master of ballet was clearly trying his hand to some effect. The dancers, and especially their choreographer Alastair Marriott, deserve credit for a great deal of the success of this production.

MusicWeb Seen and Heard reviewer Mark Berry saw the production on the first night, 20 November 2009, three nights before the first of those at which the DVD was recorded, so everything may have sharpened up a little after his visit. His enjoyment was somewhat spoiled by a spate of coughing and noises from electronic devices – none of which, fortunately, has found its way onto the recording – but he was affected by the infectiousness of Alexander Polianchko’s enthusiasm for the work, having earlier interviewed him. Without finding myself able to endorse his naughty rejection of ‘anything by Verdi’ – he may not measure up to my three operatic heroes Handel, Mozart and Wagner, but he often comes pretty close – I find myself in a large measure of agreement with his review, to which I refer you, complete with photos from the production – here.

Larissa Diadkova as Solokha begins the vocal proceedings. She out-sings Maxim Mikhailov as the Devil, who comes over as vocally somewhat deficient, though both contribute to the fun.

Oxana’s part is somewhat lengthy, as she dithers about whether to accept Vakula’s courtship. Though Olga Guryakova displays a rather wide Slavic vibrato in the part and is occasionally a trifle shrill, I was better pleased with her contribution than Mark Berry was – maybe she improved between the two performances.

Vsevolod Grivnov’s Vakula is the undoubted star of the show, with a voice which would not sound out of place even in Wagner. He’s almost wasted here and I’d like to hear him in a more demanding part, where the latent heroic qualities of his voice could be more fully developed.

Of the other characters Vladimir Matorin as Oxana’s father Chub and Sergei Leiferkus as Prince Potemkin make the greatest impressions.

The picture quality and sound are very good throughout, though I imagine that Blu-ray improves somewhat in both departments. For owners of large screens and surround sound the extra three pounds or so which the Blu-ray costs would probably be well spent. Nevertheless, everything looked well on my television with up-scaling of the picture and the sound was excellent, as played via my audio system.

The attractive booklet contains informative notes and a helpful detailed synopsis. The English subtitles are idiomatic – I’m not in a position to say how accurate they are. The Dynamic CD set comes complete with libretto but, unfortunately, the Adobe Acrobat version of this from the Naxos Music Library did not display the Cyrillic characters on my computer screen.

There is a tradition on German television of showing an old black-and-white British comedy show every Christmas. I suspect that the DVD of Cherevichki will now be as regular a visitor to my player as that show is on German television, or as Nutcracker is, with Simon Rattle’s new recording (EMI Classics 6463852 - review) now taking over from Ansermet as my version of choice. (See December 2010 Download Roundup.) Perhaps it will still be playing there on New Year’s Day to vie with the Vienna Philharmonic and their annual romp through the works of the Strauss family.

Brian Wilson




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