CherevichkiPyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Cherevichki

The Royal Opera, Covent Garden, 2009 | Alexander Polianchko, Francesca Zambello, Olga Guryakova, Vsevolod Grivnov, Larissa Diadkova, Vladimir Matorin, Maxim Mikhailov | Opus Arte

A little-known Tchaikovsky opera, rarely performed, Cherevichki (entitled The Tsarina’s Slippers in English) is not a particularly great opera either, although it was considered highly by the composer himself, who worked through several versions of it over a number of years. Based on a Gogol short story however, a fairy tale of fantastical proportions, it’s served well by this 2009 Royal Opera House production directed by Francesca Zambello which manages to brilliantly serve the characteristics that are specifically Gogol, Tchaikovsky as well as being utterly Russian, all of them coming together to often dazzling effect.

You could say that there are two strands to the story in this respect, the side that emphasises the qualities of Gogol, and the other that works in Tchaikovsky’s favour, both of them connected in the essential Russian qualities of the piece as a whole. The Gogol elements are most evident in the activities of the devil and his consorting with the witch Solokha on Christmas Eve. Infuriated at a mocking picture painted of him by Vakula, her son, the blacksmith, the devil sets out to cause disruption to the town and hamper Vakula’s wooing of Oxana. The opera and the production, with terrific set designs by Mikhail Mokorov, fully brings out the playful Gogolesque character of these segments. In the second strand Vakula sets off on an impossible task to win the love of Oxana, travelling to the capital to obtain a pair of shoes as beautiful as those of the Tsarina. Here the beauty of Tchaikovsky’s music is allowed to shine in a couple of ballet sequences and an authentic Cossack dance, again, all wonderfully staged.

Indeed, it’s Mikhail Mokorov’s set designs that are the real star of this production, appropriately bold and colourful like a big Christmas pantomime, with similar fun antics taking place on the stage. There is no major technological wizardry employed, just traditional backdrops and props, but brilliantly designed and imaginatively used. The costumes are just as colourful and impressive, suiting the occasion while also being authentic to Ukrainian tradition. The production, while wonderful to look at, doesn’t however flow all that well. The acting feels a little stiff, never really entering into the spirit of the farce, and the singing seems a little underpowered, the whole thing never really sparking to life in the way that it should.

A rare production of a little-known Tchaikovsky opera, this performance of Cherevichki is not without its merits, and is worthwhile for that alone, but any shortcomings in the performance or the opera itself are more than compensated for by the colourful spectacle and a rousing finale. The opera is also a welcome new alternative to Hansel and Gretel, The Nutcracker or Cinderella as an even more seasonally appropriate classical Christmas entertainment.

The qualities of the production are enhanced by the Blu-ray High Definition presentation, which does full justice to the colour and spectacle, and it sounds simply incredible in either its PCM Stereo or DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 surround mix. Extras are not extensive, the Making Of broken down into smaller pieces that serve as an introduction, a look at the characters and the cast, with some background on the staging of Gogol’s world.