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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Cherevichki (The Slippers), Op.14 (1876, revised 1887) [174.46]
Valery Popov (tenor) - Vakula; Ludmila Shemchuk (mezzo) - Solokha; Albert Schagidullin (baritone) - The Devil, Master of Ceremonies; Vladimir Ognovenko (bass) - Chub; Ekaterina Morosova (soprano) - Oxana; Barseg Tumanyan (bass) - Pan Golova; Valentin Prolat (tenor) - Panas; Vladimir Okenko (tenor) - Schoolmaster; Grigory Osipov (baritone) - Prince; Pavel Cernoch (tenor) - Attendant; Frantisek Zahradnicek (baritone) - Old Cossack; Fabio Bonavita (baritone) - Woodsprite
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Lirico Cagliari/Gennady Rozhdestvensky
rec. live, Teatro Cagliari, January 2000
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94375 [3 CDs: 58.43 + 48.34 + 67.29]

Experience Classicsonline


This opera, first performed in 1876 under the title Vakula the Smith, but re-titled and revised eleven years later, has not been recorded frequently. The first recording was made in 1948 by Bolshoi forces under Alexander Melik-Pashayev, and the pretty awful quality of the sound has not prevented the performance from remaining intermittently in the catalogue on various labels ever since. A subsequent Russian recording in 1974 under Vladimir Fedoseyev - although inferior as a vocal performance - was much better recorded. It was made available internationally for a period but its subsequent availability has been patchy. However both these recordings were quite heavily cut - about half an hour trimmed from the whole - and it seems that this recording, made live in Sardinia in 2000, was the first to give us the score complete even at the cost of requiring three CDs instead of two for the earlier issues. Brilliant Classics have already issued this performance originally on Dynamic as part of their complete 60 CD Tchaikovsky edition (review), and now make the opera available separately. There have been a number of revivals in recent years - including a Covent Garden production in 2009 which has also found it way both onto CD and Blu-Ray.
 
So much for the recording history: what of the music? It is somewhat ironic that a composer like Tchaikovsky, who poured such a wealth of melody into his ballets and orchestral scores, seems to have so often faltered when it came to his operas. Even works like Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades, both of which have made their way into the international repertory, are wanting in memorable material and lack the tunefulness of his other works. While these better-known operas have a dramatic drive which overcomes this, the highly whimsical plot of The slippers cannot hope to command the same degree of dramatic commitment from performers or audiences which would enable it to grab the attention in the same way. Nevertheless Tchaikovsky himself thought very highly of the score even in its original form, and preserved much of the 1876 version in his later revision.
 
A word about the presentation of this release. Brilliant Classics state on the back of the box that a libretto is available on their website, but this gives an English translation only which does not help one to follow the text being sung. At the same time the booklet note, although it contains four pages of notes on the work itself - in English translation only, presumably deriving from an Italian original - has no summary of the plot or any description of the scenes. The tracks are listed in detail, but this nevertheless leaves the listener somewhat in the dark. The list of characters gives no indication even of the range of the voices of the various characters, and the transliteration of their names does not always correspond with the basic synopses available from sites such as Wikipedia. For the convenience of potential listeners I have given the ranges of voices in the headnote to this review, and have rationalised some of the transliterations; but the vocal score is available online and this gives the text in Russian with a German transliteration which is of some assistance in following the plot.
 
Following the score therefore with the help of the vocal score, it is a pleasure to be able to report that Rozhdestvensky (as one might expect) gets a thoroughly musically committed response from the Cagliari orchestra in the Prelude, a much more substantial piece than its equivalents in Eugene Onegin or The Queen of Spades. One can tell immediately that the players are thoroughly enjoying themselves although the horn in the prelude could be smoother. While there could be more violins in the orchestra they produce a nicely substantial sound despite a rather dry acoustic. Even so one could imagine a more romantic sound from them in their big tunes at 8.00 and 10.00 - the brass very predominant at the latter point. The applause from the audience at the end of the Prelude sounds rather luke-warm.
 
The first voice which we hear is that of Ludmila Shemchuk, a known quantity from a number of other Russian opera recordings - somewhat eccentrically here transliterated as Semciuk. Here is a solid singer free of any hint of Slavonic wobble. She is confronted by the Devil Bes who is sung with similarly firm tone by Albert Schagidullin. The voices are balanced rather forward of the orchestra, but plenty of instrumental detail comes through; and they display a nice light touch in their ensuing duet. In the following scene the dying-down of the snowstorm brings from Tchaikovsky one of his long series of running descending scales - think of the passage towards the end of 1812 - which rather outstay their welcome, especially at Rozhdestvensky’s rather ponderous speed.It’s hardly Molto più mosso as the score indicates.
 
The entry of Oxana (or Oksana as transliterated here) brings the first of the major singers to our attention. Ekaterina Morosova is very good, and again there is no hint of Slavonic vibrato. She is charming in her artlessly strophic opening aria which includes a nicely delicate top C at the end. That said, one could hope for a more heartfelt response from the violins at 1.44 and elsewhere. Her lover Vakula, who now arrives, is also very well taken by Valery Popov. The role requires a lyric tenor with plenty of heroic timbre and Popov impresses immediately in his aria, ringing out on the high notes with no sense of strain whatsoever. The First Act concludes with an extended and acrimonious duet - with chorus towards the end - for the two of them. They strike the right sort of sparks off each other and are well matched when they sing together. The other principal is Vladimir Ognovenko in the role of the heroine’s father Chub - Cub in the transliteration here - who is also firm of voice if rather unyielding of tone, and never really sounds genial even in the final scene of reconciliation.
 
The opening scene of the Second Act is boisterously comic, but the second scene features a nicely dramatic final section where Morosova and Popov again are well matched - she produces a stunning cadenza rising to top C which features some very well handled trills. Her vigorous singing in the ensuing chorus provokes some premature applause before the finale has properly concluded. At the end we get a really good tune, first sung by Popov with interjections from Morosova and the chorus, and then briefly expanded in the orchestra under the closing pages of the act. It is a pity we never hear it again.
 
The Third Act opens with a very odd chorus where bars of 5/4 persistently interrupt the regular 3/4 rhythm - shades of the second movement of the Pathétique - but unfortunately the basic melodic material is not very memorable. There is a good deal of unexplained stage noise in the foreground which sounds rather like people traipsing through polythene. Incidentally there is a very minor cut here, with a literal repeat of part of the chorus omitted - Fedoseyev makes the same snip. This is followed a few minutes later by an extended aria for Vakula which is entirely missing from page 209 of the vocal score and which Fedoseyev also includes. Is it perhaps an interpolation from the original Vakula the Smith? Whatever it may be, it is well worth its restoration and Popov sings it very nicely.
 
The scene moves to the imperial court and we are greeted with a Polonaise that sounds for all the world like a sketch for the similar movement in Eugene Onegin and which receives its own round of applause from the audience. In the ensuing scene the Prince - or, as Brilliant have it, “His Serene Highness” - has a folksy sort of pair of couplets which sound disturbingly like a bass version of Orlovsky welcoming his guests to the ball in Fledermaus. We are given both verses of these, which is fair enough as Grigory Osipov sings them engagingly and displays a good solid high F. The other dances which follow - a minuet, a Russian dance and a Cossack dance - are nothing special and certainly not a patch on the similar pieces in The Nutcracker, although the audience interrupts the performance to applaud the dancers in the latter two movements.
 
The short Fourth Act fits neatly onto the third CD after the previous one. It opens with a lamenting duet for the two principal females, and Morosova blends well with the more naturally powerful Schemchuk in their passages in thirds. Later Shemchuk transposes some of her deeper passages up from the pitches shown in the vocal score so that she continues to sing a third rather than a octave below Morosova. One would think that it would have been worth preserving the contrasting treatment - Shemchuk has no problems with similarly subterranean passages elsewhere and Fedoseyev gives the passage as written. Again the audience interrupts the action with applause for the following chorus, presumably for the dancers whose movements can be clearly heard on the recording. The closing chorus with its gusli imitations clearly shows the influence of Glinka - incidentally a clear misprint at the beginning of page 293 of the vocal score in Oxana’s part is corrected. The audience interrupts the final chords with sustained but not over-enthusiastic applause, and we are then given a reprise of the orchestral part of the final chorus - presumably to accompany curtain-calls. 
 
The supporting cast is generally workmanlike and sometimes more than that, although Vladimir Okenko is not ideally precise in the opening notes of his plaintive little song. As the only Italian in the cast, Fabio Bonavita seems to be thoroughly at home in the Russian language, as do the hard-working chorus, although the upper tenor line could be stronger particularly in their offstage scene in the second scene of the Second Act; they get better once they get - somewhat noisily - on to the stage.
 
It may be noted that I have said very little about the plot, which is really nonsensical. Vakula is told by his beloved Oxana that she will not marry him unless he brings her a pair of the tsarina’s slippers. Vakula commandeers the help of the Devil to transport him to St Petersburg, where his request is granted with such little fuss that one wonders why he needed diabolical help in the first instance. Everything ends happily and nobody seems any the worse for the experience. Tchaikovsky hangs some charming music on this trivial scenario, but there is not much to engage his dramatic attention. One can see why he was fond of the score, and thought it worth revision but it is no masterpiece and several of his other operas have more serious claims on the attention of modern listeners.
 
However if you want an absolutely complete audio recording of this opera, there is only one choice and that is this one. Of the abridged recordings, if you don’t mind really awful sound the old Bolshoi 1948 performance is somewhat better than the rather paler but better recorded Fedoseyev - which suffers like its predecessor from a balance that emphasises the voices at the expense of the orchestra. Otherwise the version here is not at all a bad representation of the score, although one does wish that Cagliari could have furnished Rozhdestvensky with more and stronger violins. The playing on the Fedoseyev set shows what can be achieved in a modern recording with bigger forces. The theatre has achieved a good record with their performances of neglected Russian operas. Their recent recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Invisible city of Kitezh arguably rivalled that of the Kirov. This recording shows that this reputation rests on good foundations.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 


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