Review — The Tsarina’s Slippers, Royal Opera, November 2009

This little-known Tchaikovsky opera is based on a tale by Gogol called Christmas Eve, a time of the year when witches were abroad, and demonic forces had to be tamed. In this story it’s achieved through youthful energy and a sense of fun, as Vakula the smith cunningly uses and circumvents these dangerous magical forces. They enable him to acquire the Tsarina’s slippers, a heroic task that his beloved Oxana challenges him to achieve if he wants to marry her. The basic story — boy gets girl — appears here in a phantasmagorical setting where the young man’s mother is a witch whose admirers include the schoolmaster, the mayor, and the devil himself.

This sparkling production by Francesca Zambello has lovely set designs by Mikhail Mokrov, and very colourful costumes by Tatiana Noginova, with lighting design by Rick Fisher. It includes serious ballet work, some electrifying Cossack dances and acrobatics, plus court dances for the opera chorus, all choreographed by Alastair Marriott. The second half, comprising Acts III and IV, is wonderful fun; the Cossack dancers were absolutely terrific, and Gary Avis and Mara Galeazzi of the Royal Ballet did some lovely pas-de-deux work.

Musically it all worked very well under the baton of Alexander Polianichko, who drew strong contributions from the wind section, and a very Russian sound from the orchestra. As to the singers, Larissa Diadkova was predictably excellent as Solokha the witch, with Maxim Mikhailov vocally and physically lively as the devil. The bass role for the elderly Cossack, Chub was wonderfully sung and acted by Vladimir Matorin, and Vakula was very strongly performed by Vsevolod Grivnov, making a superb debut at Covent Garden. Chub’s daughter Oxana was sung by Olga Guryakova, also making her debut at Covent Garden, but her powerful voice was regrettably screechy at times. This was altogether a fine cast, and Sergei Leiferkus sang glowingly in the relatively small role of ‘his highness’, who provides Vakula with the Tsarina’s slippers.

It’s a new production that should appeal to anyone with an appreciation for Tchaikovsky, Russian opera, or indeed magical realism in the great Slavic tradition. The only problem is that it was sold out before the first night!

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