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Barry Brenesal
Fanfare, March 2011

Cherevichki has never been an opera I cared for much. It suffers structurally from a first and second act that are simply one long act cut in half, and an under-developed subplot that’s no more than a couple of events. Musically, it contains a fair amount of substandard content, both in Tchaikovsky’s folk manner and his more ambitious symphonic one, especially throughout the first act. The most memorable things in the work aren’t arias, but two ballets, and one Great Big Tune (which sounds as though it were borrowed from some unpublished string work) that the composer simply states four times in the act II finale. I rank it below Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin, Mazeppa, The Maid of Orleans, The Queen of Spades, and The Oprichnik for inspiration.

So why would I want to review this? First, because the opera is uneven, not wholly bad. It does contain some fine music, especially in the third and fourth acts. When it all comes together—during the second ballet of act III, or the lengthy first scene of act II, with Solokha the Witch entertaining each of her four suitors as she quickly improvises means of hiding the last one who appeared—it succeeds very well, indeed. Secondly, because it’s a Russian folk opera, based on Gogol, and I have an abiding interest in both of those categories. In other words, while I’d much rather have seen a new production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s May Night, Tsar Saltan, or Kashchei the Deathless, I’ll settle for Cherivichki, and patiently wait through act I for some of the bright spots in the rest.

The waiting is made more pleasant in this case by an excellent production. Francesca Zambello decided on an overarching visual theme of stylized Ukrainian folk art for the three acts set in the village, with set designer Mikhail Mokrov providing a flattened perspective, playful imagery, and plenty of bright primary colors. When the action switches in act III to the forest, a haze of earth tints (and dry ice) is joined by a background of huge, dagger-like leaves: appropriately dangerous for a place where rusalki gather to lure humans to death-by-drowning. Later, St. Petersburg and the nobility are displayed as folktales presented them, all shining gold buildings and exaggerated French fashions. The lighting is good, the costuming excellent. Blocking is handled expertly, and it’s a mark of Zambello’s craft that even individual chorus members quietly display distinctive facial reactions to events on stage.

I have only one criticism to make in all this, and it concerns the heroine, Oksana. In Gogol’s original story, in older folktales, and in the libretto, she’s presented as a flighty, imperious, cruel beauty. She constantly puts down her suitor, Vakula the Smith, and the task she assigns him in public, in exchange for her betrothal, is impossible: Get her the Tsarina’s slippers. Olga Guryakova, clearly with Zambello’s approval, softens that portrayal, making her look hesitant when tossing her heartless zingers, or gaze lovingly on Vakula when he isn’t looking. The problem as I see it is that this cheapens the success of Vakula’s quest—which really isn’t the slippers, at all. It’s Oksana’s love, for which the slippers are a means to an end. If she appears too melting from the start, there can be no grand thaw when Vakula hands her the slippers in act IV.

The cast is mostly very good. Guryakova is in excellent form, agile and lyric, while Vsevolod Grivnov, whom I’ve enjoyed greatly in Rachmaninoff’s The Miserly Knight, may be a bit heavy, vocally speaking, for the part, but possesses the requisite bel canto approach to phrasing required by all the lyrical tenor roles in Russian Nationalist operas. Sergei Leiferkus plays “His Highness” as Field Marshall Kutuzov, complete with eye patch, but it doesn’t cover for an elderly voice in sad decline, with a wobble, scoops, and forced chest resonance. Larissa Diadkova is in excellent form, her focused mezzo and fine acting providing distinction to every scene she appears in. The secondary roles are almost all filled with distinction. (Viacheslav Voynarovsky would have made a fine Vakula himself, judged solely on vocal merits, if he didn’t look like a 45-year-old accountant.) The Royal Ballet acquits itself well, though the introduction of a child dancer into both act III and the act IV finale pushes the sugar index up just a bit high for my tastes. Conductor Alexander Polianichko is somewhat stiff, and repeatedly falls out of sync with his singers, but sets reasonable if at times over-relaxed tempos.

The camerawork suffers through the first couple of acts from the usual inability to angle shots, or apply anything other than close-ups—which renders the Vakula-Oksana duet of act I and act II’s scene between Solokha, Vakula, and her three hidden suitors dramatically ineffective. Matters improve during the last two acts, which are almost entirely ensemble work, and the camera crew suddenly discovers that it can frame larger pieces of action than just a single person waist-up at any given time.

My recommendation? Get this, for the production, and the best of the score, while hoping that Covent Garden and Zambello will give us something more musically memorable in the future.

Patrick Neas
The Kansas City Star, January 2011

Opus Arte has just released the perfect DVD to watch on a snowy winter day. “Cherevichki” (“The Czarina’s Slippers”) by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky is based on Nikolai Gogol’s short story “Christmas Eve,” which also inspired an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov.

The comic tale, set in a Ukrainian village on a snowstormy Christmas Eve, features the comic antics of the devil, a flying witch and a hapless suitor who must go to the czar’s court to retrieve a pair of the czarina’s slippers for his demanding betrothed. Tchaikovsky’s take on the story includes lots of dancing (as one would expect from the composer of “Swan Lake”), and not only ballet but also earthy Cossack dances.

Tchaikovsky thought it was his best opera, and, although many might dispute that, the Royal Opera Orchestra and Chorus and members of the Royal Ballet make a brilliant case for this unjustly neglected work. With its Christmas-time theme, wintry landscape and colorful sets and costumes, this is an opera sure to appeal to fans of “The Nutcracker.”

Anne Shelley
Music Media Monthly, December 2010

TCHAIKOVSKY, P.I.: Cherevichki (Royal Opera House, 2009) (NTSC) OA1037D
TCHAIKOVSKY, P.I.: Cherevichki (Royal Opera House, 2009) (Blu-ray, HD) OABD7073D

Just in time for the holidays, this rendition of Tchaikovsky’s only comic opera opens appropriately with a disc menu that’s visually suggestive of an advent calendar. Based on Nikolai Gogol’s 1830 short story about what Satan does on Christmas Eve, Cherevichki was thought by Tchaikovsky to be the best of his four operas. Today this work is rarely performed even in Russia, and its first professional U.K. performance didn’t happen until Garsington Opera’s 2004 summer festival.

Recorded live from the Royal Opera House in November 2009, the production’s scale is sizable, with a large chorus, children, and dancers—some borrowed from the neighboring Royal Ballet and some imported for their expertise in the Ukrainian style of Cossack dancing. The set was purposefully designed to be low-tech yet still very complex in its responsibilities; very two-dimensional, bright, and almost childlike painted scenery convincingly depicts three very different worlds: those of the peasants, the supernatural, and the court of Catherine the Great.

Of course, the most engaging roles in this show and many others are those embodying evil and trickery. In this production, the experienced Russian mezzo Larissa Diadkova performs her first notable comedic role as the witch Solokha. I find her voice gruff and unremarkable here, but her stage presence is strong and perhaps with different direction, she could have captured this role even more effectively than she did. Similarly, Maxim Mikhailov’s acting as the Devil is delightful but his tone is inconsistent across registers. Though the small number of audio recordings of Cherevichki may represent higher-quality performances, this perfectly acceptable production is likely to remain the only one on video for some time. Disc extras include trailer-like interviews with the production’s director and conductor, a plot synopsis guided by the director, and a slideshow gallery of the cast.

Frank Behrens
Keene (New Hampshire) Sentinel, December 2010

Although, it is said, Tchaikovsky claimed “Cherevichki” (1887) was his favorite opera, few have ever heard of it. Indeed, a short book about the composer in my collection never mentions it. However, the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, decided to stage it, and I am most grateful that Opus Arte committed the performance to DVD. The cast, chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera are under the baton of Alexander Polianichko.

Based on a Gogol short story titled “Christmas Eve,” the fairy tale plot partly involves a parody of a love affair between Solokha, a witch (Larissa Diadkova), and the Devil (Maxim Mikhailov), who is outraged that her son Vakula (Vsevolod Grivnov) had painted an insulting picture of him. Vakula is in love with the beautiful Oxana (Olga Guryakova), who turns him down. Still, she says she will marry him if he brings to her the Tsarina’s Slippers (which is the English title given to this production).

There is a lot of comic (or what was comic back in Tsarist days) subplot concerning three older men of the town vying for Oxana’s favors and winding up in sacks in a scene straight out of a French farce. Things do get a bit tiresome here and there, but there are enough dance sequences to liven things up when needed.

The overall vision of Director Francesca Zambello was to give a visual impression of Gogol’s Ukrainian world by patterning the costumes after authentic examples of that region’s dress and the painted scenery in a representative but never realistic impression of a snow-covered village. When the scene changes to the court of St. Petersburg, the French courtly dress and stiff, formal dancing display a world far removed from the Ukraine.

In fact, I might consider this to be the most beautifully mounted opera I have ever seen. The sheer colorfulness of it all is most impressive. The score, as with Tchaikovsky’s other operas, matches the dreamy nature of the plot, but I doubt if anyone will recall a single melody after just one hearing.

The running time of the opera is about 142 minutes, and there is a short discussion of the scenery. The subtitles are in four languages.

Robert Benson, December 2010

TCHAIKOVSKY, P.I.: Cherevichki (Royal Opera House, 2009) (NTSC) OA1037D
TCHAIKOVSKY, P.I.: Cherevichki (Royal Opera House, 2009) (Blu-ray, HD) OABD7073D

Nutcracker isn’t Tchaikovsky’s only major composition that takes place Christmas Eve. Cherevichki (also known as The Little Shoes, The Tsarina’s Slippers, or Les caprices d’Oxana), the eighth of his ten operas, was suggested by Nikolay Gogol’s short story Christmas Eve. It is a fantastic comic opera combining music and dance. Although Tchaikovsky felt this was one of his finest operas, the music is generally unmemorable. The plot involves young lovers Oxana and Vakula who have to deal with a witch and the devil, and the scenario includes an enchanted lake and a festive ballroom extravaganza. After the 1887 premiere (which Tchaikovsky conducted), Cherevichki fell into oblivion; even in Russia it was seldom performed. This spectacular DVD is a big-scale production from the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in November 2009. Tatiana Noginova’s costumes are elaborately colorful, and Mikhail Mokrov’s sets have the fantasy of a fairy tale. All of the singers and dancers are superb, with a special nod to the four Cossack dancers in Act III. Video is stunning—this is a feast for the eyes, and for the ears as well as the audio is as natural as it could be. This is a welcome quality release of an unjustly neglected opera seldom experienced live.

Nicholas Sheffo
Fulvue Drive-in, November 2010

One of the lesser-seen fantasy pieces of Gogol’s tale of Satan up to no good on Christmas Eve, Tchaikovsky’s Cherevichki – The Tsarina’s Slippers is from 1887 and deserves to been performed more often. This Royal Opera House performance is top notch, it was Tchaikovsky’s favorite opera and rightly so. It is like watching a lost film or watching one that was put away for dumb reasons for too long. Mikhail Mokrov’s sets are terrific, Francesca Zambello produced and Alexander Polianichko conducts a cast hat has exceptional energy, comic timing and chemistry. It would be nice if this performance caused a revival of the work, because it is that good and the opera deserves it.

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