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Gramophone, December 2010

Sticking with the festive theme, the Christmas Eve tale of The Tsarina’s Slippers is here sumptuously retold at Covent Garden with a largely Russian cast, Cossack dancers, fairy-tale costumes and atmospheric snow-topped sets. It’s all rich, humorous, romantic stuff in which to lose yourself on a cold December night—or perhaps, this being a Russia, a January one! The picture quality is exemplary, the acting is nicely dialled down for close-ups rather than playing to the back of the hall, and the sound, in DTS-HD Master Audio, strikes the perfect balance between orchestra and singers. It’s an unusual festive treat.

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.

Jeffrey Kauffman, November 2010

Mention Tchaikovsky and Christmas in the same sentence and chances are the only thing that will come to virtually everyone’s mind is The Nutcracker. That staple of the ballet repertoire wasn’t even initially thought of as a seasonal piece, as odd as they may sound. What may sound even odder is that Tchaikovsky actually did write a Christmas themed piece, an opera, a comedy no less, that almost no one has heard of. Initially produced under the title Vakula the Smith in 1876, it, like The Nutcracker, was met with critical brickbats, but unlike The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky himself felt the piece could be improved by some judicious tinkering, and he returned to the project several times over the intervening years. The opera was restaged some time later as The Caprices of Oxana and then finally in 1887 as Cherevichki, a word that has been variously translated as The Fancy Slippers and now in this newer Royal Opera House production, The Tsarina’s Slippers. Have you heard of it? If so, you’re a better classical music aficionado than this reviewer, and I frankly consider myself fairly well schooled in classical music in general, and Russian composers in particular. For some reason Cherevichki has never really found an audience, either within the confines of Russia and the Bolshoi or especially in the western world. Tchaikovsky is often thought of as a maudlin melodramatist, someone with his heart beating rather profusely on his sleeve, architect of the big emotion and grand gesture, colorful but not exactly full of nuance. Could this preconception have kept audiences from even checking out one of his few attempts at comedy? Who knows? But the fact is Cherevichki is an incredibly charming piece, especially in the gorgeous production. Based on the short story Christmas Eve by Nikolai Gogol, Cherevichki is like an ancient Russian folktale come gloriously to life, and it is filled with some of Tchaikovsky’s most memorable music.

Vakula (Vsevolod Grivnov), the town smith, has “decorated” the local church with a large and blasphemous illustration of The Devil. Solokha (Larissa Diadkova), the town witch, has a reunion with The Devil (Maxim Mikhailov), who has arrived to take vengeance on Vakula for his insolence in depicting him inartfully. The Devil wreaks havoc on the town by causing a huge storm which hides the moon, depriving the townspeople of their only source of exterior light during the dark Russian winter night. The Devil is hoping that will keep Chub (Vladimir Matorin), father of Vakula’s love Oxana (Olga Guryakova), home, thereby making it impossible for Vakula to arrange an illicit dalliance. The Devil underestimates Chub’s desire to get to the local pub, and Oxana’s father does indeed venture out into the moonless night, quickly getting lost in the process. That sets up a farcical interlude with Vakula making to Oxana’s home, but throwing Chub out on his ear when the snow-covered patriarch returns from his wintry travels.

Act II ups the farcical ante considerably, concentrating on Solokha and a variety of suitors who show up sequentially at her home. These include The Devil himself, the Mayor (Alexander Vassiliev), the Schoolmaster (Viacheslav Voynarovskiy), and Chub, all of whom hide in sacks as the next prospective love maker appears. Vakula arrives, lamenting his unhappy love life and decides to leave the town. Thinking he’s taking coal and the tools of his trade, he walks off with the sacks in tow. As the villagers start to celebrate Christmas, Oxana takes the opportunity to berate Vakula in public, teasing that she will marry him if he can manage to obtain the Tsarina’s slippers. Vakula is so distraught, he escapes with only one of his four sacks.

The third act is a bit of a cat and mouse game between Vakula and The Devil, who has been stuck in the sack that Vakula has made off with. Suffice it to say that Vakula manages to make it to the Court in St. Petersburg, and does indeed manage to procure a pair of the Tsarina’s slippers. Act IV is an expected happy ending for Oxana and Vakula, as Christmas festivities swing into high gear.

Gogol, whose short story provided the basis for Yakov Polonsky’s libretto (later amended by Nikolay Chayev and Tchaikovsky himself), is often remembered for his satire and sardonic sense of humor. What is manifest here is more of the fantastic, as in fantasy-laden characters cut out of a rustic Russian past, mixed with just a touch of the supernatural in the roles of Solokha and The Devil. Cherevichki is like a lavishly illustrated fairy tale come to life in this sumptuously beautiful production that is highlighted by Mikhail Mokrov’s astoundingly effective set designs, matched completely by the inventive work of costume designer Tatiana Noginova. As should be fairly obvious to anyone paying attention to the names of the many cast members and crew members listed in this review, the Royal Opera House and director Francesca Zembello have imported a whole slew of native Russians to make this presentation as authentic as possible. That includes a quartet of real life Cossack dancers for one of the specialty numbers in Act III.

If you’ve seen The Nutcracker one too many times, or even a few too many times, don’t let the name Tchaikovsky keep you from exploring this really charming production. The vagaries of history are often hard to fathom, and why Cherevichki has not attained greater renown is really quite baffling. Especially as presented in this pitch perfect production, this is an opera which could easily supplant more tangentially “Christmasy” pieces like Hansel and Gretel (certainly one of the oddest choices ever for holiday family fare) in the repertoire of major opera houses worldwide. Kudos to the Royal Opera House, and its sibling the Royal Ballet, for offering this scintillating marriage of opera and ballet, certainly one of the best Christmas presents ever for classical music fans.

Video Quality

It’s a little difficult to know whether my enthusiasm about Cherevichki’s AVC encoded 1080i 1.78:1 image is due to the transfer itself or simply the absolutely lovely, whimsical and delightful production design this opera presents. There are some very transitory artifact issues to report, mostly in busy costume patterns and the like, so let that be your main concern. Otherwise, what an incredible joy this is to watch. Colors dance around the screen in brilliantly robust saturation. We’re treated to everything from very bold blues, reds and greens to more pastel laden tints in some of the fairyland sequences. And the St. Petersburg court is a riot of gold. The image here is nicely sharp, especially in midrange and close-up shots, where The Devil’s furry legs and latexed pig nose reveal a host of fine detail. This is quite simply one of the most fun operas I’ve seen in many a moon (magically darkened or otherwise), and this Blu-ray makes the most out of a very, very imaginative series of images.

Audio Quality

Cherevichki benefits from a largely Russian cast, as well as a Russian conductor, Alexander Polianichko, and the two lossless tracks, a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and an LPCM 2.0, are vigorous and sport brilliant fidelity. This is a typically colorful Tchaikovsky score, and the orchestral flash flies through the surrounds most appealingly. The singing here is full throated, not always full of incredible nuance, but unbelievably powerful, and the DTS track supports the wide range of frequencies easily. Balance between the singers and the orchestra is excellent and there are no anomalies of any kind to report. This is a structurally fairly conservative outing for Tchaikovsky (lots of quasi-32 bar song formats), and as such it may indeed be more instantly accessible to non-classically oriented listeners.

Special Features and Extras

Aside from the expected Cast Gallery, the other supplements are obviously culled from the same interview segments:

  • Introduction (1080i; 2:24) has some prefacing comments by Director Francesca Zambella.
  • Cast and Characters (1080i; 3:06) offers Zambella and various cast members discussing the opera.
  • Staging Gogol’s World (1080i; 6:03) concentrates more on the incredible production design.

Overall Score and Recommendation

What an unexpected early holiday gift Cherevichki is. Run, don’t walk, to your nearest online emporium (the Amazon link above springs instantly to mind) and get this splendidly engaging production of a little known Tchaikovsky gem. Children of all ages are sure to be delighted by this magical and fanciful opera. Very highly recommended.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2010

One of the most vibrant, colourful and eye-catching productions staged at London’s Royal Opera House who offered it as the 2009 Christmas presentation. Starting out life as Vakula the Smith, whatever its title, Tchaikovsky’s opera was based on Gogol’s story, Christmas Eve, its lighthearted fairytale aimed at creating an evening of delightful fantasy. The plot is complicated and requires a large cast, but taken down to its bare bones, it tells the story of Vakula, whose mother is courted by many men including the Devil, she too being something of a witch. He falls for the young village wench, Oxana, a rather highly-strung filly who says he will have to get the Empresses shoes before she will marry him. With the help of the Devil, who carries him on his back to St. Petersburg, he does successfully obtain a pair of the Empresses shoes. Victorious he returns only to find a contrite Oxana who has missed him greatly, and wants him as her husband with or without the Empresses shoes. Though it was heavily revised by Tchaikovsky to create Cherevichki (The Tsarina’s Slippers), he thought very highly of the finished product, but it has never found a place in the international opera repertoire. With a largely Russian cast, the Royal Opera House turned it into a visual spectacular, presenting one big scene after another, with big ballet scenes and a massive extravaganza at the Empresses palace. The cast is superb throughout, with Vsevolod Grivnov a heroic heldontenor as Vakula; Olga Guryakova a charming and typical Russian soprano as Oxana; Larissa Diadkova is a fulsome Solokha in voice and stature, but it is the big voice of Vladimir Matorin as Chub that almost steals the show. Maybe the chorus is just a little tentative at times, particularly at the return of Vakula, but with the range of magnificent costumes they still make a visual delight. A joint BBC/Royal Opera House product, the whole presentation is superb, the costume’s colours so thrillingly brought to your screen. Also on DVD OA1037D. My top tip for your Christmas present.

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