This is by far the earlier of only two complete studio recordings of this “comic fantasy”, a Tchaikovsky rarity; the other was made under Fedoseyev in 1974. Since then, we have had three live versions: one a composite recording under Gennady Rozhdestvensky at Cagliari in 2000, now issued on the “Brilliant” label, another composite live recording from the Garsington Festival in 2004 and a live Covent Garden performance from 2009. I confess to having heard none of these so must to some extent rely on others’ judgements and fly by the seat of my pants. However, I am heartened by the fact that all are in Russian and that we can presumably count upon a high degree of authenticity given that the first three are performed by mostly Russian casts. Whatever their merits staged, both the Garsington and Royal Opera performance were fairly unenthusiastically reviewed in the “Seen and Heard” section of MusicWeb International by two more colleagues, Hans-Theodor Wohlfahrt and Mark Berry respectively, and in terms of audio recordings we may discount them as contenders.
However, while this 1948 Bolshoi recording must surely have the greatest claim to authenticity and the presence of the great tenor Georgi Nelepp surrounded by Bolshoi regulars must be a bonus, in a review warmly welcoming the complete “Brilliant” issue, my colleague Paul Corfield Godfrey points out that both recordings under Melik-Pashayev and Fedoseyev are heavily cut by about half an hour. Furthermore, he describes the sound of the former as “pretty awful” and the singing on the latter as “inferior as a vocal performance”. The sound here is bright with the voices well forward; it is so good that I am assuming that it was recorded onto magnetic tape, which was cutting edge technology then although it is inevitably limited in comparison with a stereo recording from 1974. The re-mastering is excellent: very little edge or tape hiss although inevitably a bit papery and distorted in concerted climaxes.
Thus the only complete performance worth considering remains the one from Sardinia in 2000 conducted by Rozhdestvensky and now issued on the budget “Brilliant” label. Neither this nor the Melodiya sets provide a libretto but there is at least an English translation available on the “Brilliant” website and a vocal score in Russian and German may be found
. Otherwise, there is a brief historical note, a synopsis and track-listings in Russian, English and French and nothing else: no exact recording date or location and not even the voice-types are indicated so I have made some educated guesses above in the review listing which might be wrong. Even though the singers have exemplary diction and act vividly with their voices to inflect the text with nuance and humour, non-Russian speakers will perforce miss the details of the extended, quickfire comic exchanges. The English translation of the synopsis and track titles is dodgy, viz. “Solokha treats gorilka to the guest” and “Did you have a safe way?” (which is presumably not an enquiry regarding the local provision of supermarkets); such slips vindicate the wisdom of reputable translation houses who always ask a translator to translate only into his mother-tongue, whereas the work here has been done by one N. Kousnetzov. Nonetheless, the attractions of this old recording to the collector tolerant of vintage sound remain, not the least the aforementioned pre-eminence of the performers under the baton of Melik-Pashayev, responsible for so many admired Soviet recordings.
The operas itself is a revision of the original Vakula the Smith
, based on the tale “Christmas Eve” by Gogol which Tchaikovsky had read and loved as a child and upon which Rimsky-Korsakov also based his own opera of the same name as Gogol’s short story. It was first performed in 1876. Despite being revived for three years running, it was, in the composer’s typically mordant and self-critical phrase, “a stately flop” but the score remained dear to Tchaikovsky and he eventually re-worked it to be presented eleven years later as Cherevichki. It eventually became part of the Russian repertoire but has not exported well. Why Tchaikovsky continued all his life to regard it as the equal of Eugene Onegin and why its title should variously be translated as The Slippers or even The Tsarina’s Slippers are two of those mysteries in which life abounds. There is a little disputing that Onegin is a vastly superior work or that the literal meaning of the title is “high-heeled, narrow-toed, leather boots”, of the kind worn by Ukrainian women on holidays – but let that pass; I can see how despite being more ethnically correct, the translation “Holiday Boots” does not have the same ring to it, although its specifically “Little Russian” charm is typified by Tchaikovsky’s incorporation of genuine Ukrainian songs and dance rhythms.
The plot is a bit daft and uneventful and somewhat unbalanced with a fourth Act lasting only fifteen minutes. That said, this is after all, a comic fairy tale with a happy ending set at Christmas in a Ukrainian village, not a tragic tale of doomed noble souls and Tchaikovsky clearly lavished his affection on the score.
The music is really varied and cheerful without always reaching the melodically inspired heights of which we know Tchaikovsky is capable. The overture is typically engaging, first with its plaintive falling motif then a stirring section for scurrying strings and finally a succession of variations on a good tune rising to a rousing conclusion. Much of the music is first cousin to the Nutcracker. Throughout the opera we here a combination of jolly, strophic folk tunes, impassioned arias, grand, rollicking interludes and passages of atmospheric scene-painting such as the one depicting the snowstorm in Act I or the lovely, tranquil passage preceding Oksana’s first appearance, as the storm subsides. The dance music in Act IV prefigures what we hear in the mature operas, especially the Polonaise which is obviously a precursor to the one in Eugene Onegin.
The singers are first class: mezzo-soprano Antonova as the good witch Solokha is rich, firm and steady while Nelepp is surely one of the three greatest lirico-spinto Russian tenors of his generation. He definitely impresses here with the power, beauty and security of his seemingly tireless singing. For me, his three big arias and the duets with Oksana are the highlights of this recording. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his suicide aria has more than a passing resemblance to Lensky ‘s farewell to Olga. The lead soprano Kruglikova is expressive and impassioned but the top of her voice has a touch of the “steam-whistle” signature of Russian sopranos of her era and there is a hint of slide and wobble, too. Fortunately, these are not serious flaws. Mikhailov is a typically bluff, blaring Russian buffo bass, appropriate to his comic character. The two Ivanovs have firm, steady voices but the bass is especially impressive in his couplets in Act III, his vibrant tone reminiscent of the great Armenian baritone Pavel Lisitsian. The supporting cast is generally very fine and the chorus is lusty, making the most of their carolling scene.
The packaging of recent new recordings and re-issues from Melodiya has been notable for its good taste and attractiveness and this is no exception: a neat, folding cardboard cover with a silver and white textile design reminiscent of snowflakes.