The Tsarina's Slippers

Opera Review by Polly Hope

THE TSARINA’S SLIPPERS. Pyotr Il’Yich Tchaikovsky

Royal Opera House. Covent Garden. London

The Christmas season of colossal extravaganzas is here again. Whoopee for the tinsel!

This production promised to be the biggest and most wondrous of the season, and the year and into next year. Expectations were great and tickets are gold dust. A feast for everyone, a little known opera, CHEREVICHKI its original name, was heralded to arrive with all the extra delights of magic and dance, a treat on a dark winter evening in the gilded opera house. How gorgeous it would be…

So why isn’t it quite the dazzling evening expected? The preview information on the opera house website certainly looked most enticing with photos of the set and costumes and learned pieces by director and designers. The production is advertised as Russian naïve, whatever that is supposed to mean. Certainly painted sets are refreshing to behold after years of minimalist productions. Yet somehow the painted visions don’t quite hack it. Neither Bakst, Benois or Chagall. Not even good comic book style and magic effects nil despite the fact the story is full of characters flying about on broomsticks. Here they just run off stag waving their besoms, a real let down. Why not fly them? Such technology is pretty well perfected these days.

Then the music, a Russian conductor, Alexander Polianichko, and most of the singers are Russian as well, as are the designers. It should all work, Russians are good at fairy tales. However the music never takes off and can only be described as leaden. This isn’t an early work, it was written between the earth shattering Onegin and the stupendous Pique Dame. Yet where have the magical orchestration and the lovely tunes gone? Here is but a boring sequence of notes in 19th century style. Don’t think this can all be Tchaikovsky’s fault.

The singers are skilled enough, well they sing in tune but hardly in character. The maiden Oxana, sung by Olga Guryakova, whom the story is about, shrieks. One of the harshest voices I’ve ever heard on stage. And all the time. Perhaps you have to shriek out there on the steppes? Her would be husband Vakula, is sweeter of tone and looks cuddly. The other three would be lovers are vast and very noisy. Cripes they’ve got some big ones over there in Russia! Frankly nobody sings very well, and talk about ham acting! A seaside comedy show of the 1930s would look like King Lear at Shakespeare’s Globe in comparison. Embarrassing for the sophisticated audience.

Maybe all this is down to Francesca Zambello, the director? She is a well-seasoned opera director and claims to have worked a lot in Russia and spent several years putting all this production together. Could she have been looking at Russia through a vodka bottle? Has she never been out on the steppe on a winter’s day and looked at how people walk in the snow? How doors swing open, how wind blows and snow piles up and even how myriad goblins hop. Yes, this could be Middleborough or Portsmouth, no taste of Mother Russia exposing herself in mid Siberia.

There is lots of ballet in the last act. Firstly an underwater dance sequence by nymphs of the Royal Ballet. Okay, sure they dance well, but what totally horrendous choreography, gymnastics at the best. Then during a grand bash in a Petersburg palace half a dozen girls in scarlet tutus do their tricks, all held up by scarlet-coated cavaliers. Divertissements in palaces in the last act are traditional features, except this palace isn’t grand and not many people seem to be at the party. So the Pas de Six seems odd and empty and pointless. Again dismal choreography, ballet school stuff at best.

Costumes? You can guess. The naïve quality has just become garish. Bright can be terrific, here it doesn’t work, the clothes are neither a child at work with a felt tip pen nor an artist with a real sense of colour Pity. Did the designers, Mikhail Mokpov, sets and Tatiana Noginova, costumes, just try too hard? Could be.

All this production should have been incredible but every bit of it slips and is wrong. Lack of money, lack of ideas, I just don’t know. Still I bet the kiddies will love it. Oh yes, a vast bear dances wearing purple pointe shoes in the last ensemble. He is terrific. If it had all been so witty the opera house would have a winner

Polly Hope London