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Olga Guryakova as Oxana [Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of The Royal Opera]
08 Dec 2009

Tchaikovsky’s Sure-Footed ‘Slippers’

Spearheaded by a stunning design concept for The Tsarina’s Slippers, London’s Covent Garden served up as delectable a production as could be desired, and introduced its lucky patrons to a jewel of an under-performed comic opera in the bargain.

Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky: The Tsarina's Slippers

Oxana: Olga Guryakova, Viktoria Yastrebova; Vakula: Vsevolod Grivnov; Solokha: Larissa Diadkova; Chub: Vladimir Matorin; The Devil: Maxim Mikhailov; Schoolmaster: Viacheslav Voynarovskiy; Pan Golova: Alexander Vassiliev; Panas: John Upperton; His Highness: Sergei Leiferkus; Master of Ceremonies: Jeremy White; Wood Goblin: Changhan Lim. Dancers of The Royal Ballet. The Royal Opera. Conductor: Alexander Polianichko. Director: Francesca Zambello. Set Designer: Mikhail Mokrov. Costume designs: Tatiana Noginova. Lighting Designer: Rick Fisher. Choreography: Alastair Marriott.

Above: Olga Guryakova as Oxana

All photos by Bill Cooper courtesy of The Royal Opera

 

Tchaikovsky’s seldom seen opus is not, to be sure, in the same league as his Onegin, Queen of Spades or even Mazeppa. But Slippers is nevertheless chockful of the musical ingredients that inform the composer’s weightier works, and the master’s melodic gifts were often in evidence. Most of us (this listener included) were afforded that rare experience of discovering a work that was totally new to us, even if the musical vocabulary was well grounded in our ears. Each character was afforded at least one major set-piece, and if we were often at odds over the “do-we-clap-or-shouldn’t-we?-dilemma,” that only added to the evening’s spontaneity.

The riotously colorful production design appeared as though the creators had taken the most magnificent Palekh lacquer boxes, the airiest of Arthur Rackham drawings, and the wittiest work of Maurice Sendak — put them all in a bag and shook them up — and then let them tumble onto the stage of the Royal Opera. Seldom has a stage picture(s) been so effective in furthering the effectiveness of a comic opera.

Mikhailov_Diadkova_Tsarina.gifMaxim Mikhailov as the Devil and Larissa Diadkova as Solokha

Set designer Mikhail Mokrov devised a spectacularly busy show curtain that delighted the eye and established the tone of the proceedings. One remarkably apt effect followed another: a beautifully judged deep blue town drop with the requisite devil painted on the church steeple in a field of orange; meticulously detailed rustic interiors; a host of wagon insets that were as functional as they were cheeky; a haunting moon drop; a joyous Maypole (or whatever-the-heck a Maypole is called in winter!); and tongue-in-cheek flying effects as the characters take wing on their broomsticks.

Too, there was never a false moment in the atmospheric specials and area illumination of Rick Fisher’s splendid lighting design. Tatiana Noginova took full advantage of the vivid possibilities of folk costuming to fashion dazzling attire that was at once eccentric, eye-catching, complementary to the scenery, and complimentary to the performers. Ms. Noginova not only charmed us with faux animal/devil costumes, but also impressed us with the easy elegance of the dancers’ attire for the more formal ballet segments.

Having recently read some article or another expounding on the loss of national personality in Russian voices, that writer obviously never hear this bunch of soloists. For here was a whole cast (not all Russian) who had “the sound.” You know, the kind of edgy, full-throated sound with generous vibrato that the likes of Vishnevskaya once commanded.

In the key role of Oxana (she who asks for her lover to bring her the titular footwear), Olga Guryakova had a lot going for her. A little too much, perhaps at first. In the first act, Ms. Guryakova seemed a bit too loud and full-throated for the music at hand. Her first aria and scene inside the house cried out for limpid, plangent singing above the staff, and while she certainly had all the notes and sang musically, I couldn’t help but wonder what Renee might have made of those hauntingly lovely phrases. But then, whoa, wait a minute! The demands on our heroine ratcheted up in Act Two, and let me tell you, that pretty-as-a-dainty-princess Olga rode the orchestra with ease, and with clarion high notes. Thrilling stuff that. My previous experience with her gifts was in the title role of Rusalka in Brussels last season and I remember thinking then, too, that while she is very talented and stage savvy, I wish she could caress the melancholy phrases as effectively as she commands the stentorian passages.

Cossack dancers

It is perhaps unfair to muse too hard or long on Vsevold Grivnov’s take on Vakula since he was announced as “feeling a cold coming on.” He is a charming bear of a personality that really emanates a happiness to be on stage, and much of his singing gave pleasure. He seemed to be holding back on this occasion, as his pleasing tenor lacked the same vocal presence as his soprano’s. He sings big roles in major houses, manages to pace himself to spout some buzzy top notes when required, and performs with conviction and stylistic acumen. I would certainly love to hear Mr. Grivnov another time when he is operating at full steam.

The formidable Larissa Diadkova is flat out giving the star performance of the show as the witch Solokha. Hers is a rock solid technique with a thorough understanding of communication of vocal line and text, delivered with a killer smile and a set of pipes that can pin you to your seat. Ms. Diadkova is peerless in this repertoire, and she seems to be having the time of her life. So are we. Veteran Sergei Leiferkus may not have the mellifluous spin in his baritone of yore, but he sang with unparalleled elegance and poise. A sprightly Maxim Mikhailov worked the stage delightedly and offered a cleanly sung, cliche-free Devil.

Viacheslav Voynarovskiy and Alexander Vassiliev did all that was required as the Schoolmaster and Pan Golova, respectively, not least of which was walking around “trapped” in sacks to avoid discovery after their lusting visits to Solokha. Vladimir Matorin (Chub) was certainly extremely tall and extremely loud. This is a big voice and a big boy, but I had the feeling that Matorin was content to let his stature and volume do the job of creating a character, of which there is more to be mined with a more thoughtful reading. John Upperton was a secure Panas and Jette Parker Young Artist Changhan Lim showed real promise with a lovely rendition of the Wood Goblin.

Last but surely not least, Gary Avis, Mara Galeazzi and the other dancers of the Royal Ballet contributed mightily to the evening’s magic with highly assured performances of Alastair Marriott’s memorable choreography. In fact, so fine, so clean was the execution of the substantial dance segments, that it had the unfortunate effect of throwing into high relief the fact that the stage direction was. . .well. . .a bit clunky.

I have enjoyed Francesca Zambella’s work on a number of occasions. . .with musical drama. The talented Ms. Zambella seems less attuned to lighter works (at least based on this show and the rather tepid The Little Mermaid.) The cast is certainly gamely giving their all. However, enthusiastic mincing and prancing; unabashed mugging and playing to the balcony; and random semaphoring are not a substitute for comic interaction grounded in honesty and natural by-play. The specificity and focus of the director’s dramatic work were too often absent here.

Conductor Alexander Polianichko offered quite a substantive reading that seemed infused with the correct style and which ultimately blossomed into spirited music-making. For the first third of the evening, however, the pit seemed a bit off form, indeed curiously muted, with a couple of fluffs in exposed solo work that are surprising from a band that is usually spot on. Happily, midway through Act One the group caught fire and kept up a polished rendition to the end. I have to say, it was curious to have reprised the final chorus accompaniment as instrumental curtain call music! A first for me in the opera house. . .

Minor carping aside, the Royal Opera took a gamble that the public would welcome a work that was virtually unknown, and welcome it they did. As the giant golden shoe rolled on at show’s end and served as a lovers’ carriage, I was quite ready to watch it all over and be enchanted again. It is to be hoped that this winning production might have a long life, for the piece deserves a wider hearing. In the end then, the Slippers fit, the audience cheered, and if we came out (just a bit) humming the scenery, it was a grand occasion, fit for a Tsarina.

James Sohre

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