Friday, 27 November 2009

The Tsarina's Slippers at ROH

It's Christmas. How do I know? Because the estimable Royal Opera House, Covent Garden have produced a run of performances of a lesser-known Tchaikovsky opera, Cherevichki or The Tsarina's Slippers. It's a colourful, fairytale opera full of dance and fun. This is what they would have you think of prior to setting foot inside the auditorium:

It's also one of the worst operas I can think of ever having to sit through. We are introduced to characters one by laboured one - Solokha, a blacksmith's wife who is also a witch and the randy devil who has popped up to take her good-for-nothing son Vakula to task (for some counter-blasphemous graffiti). Fortuitously Vakula turns out to be a tenor and the reluctant focus of his attention, Oxana, a soprano... but we still don't get anywhere near a mention of a Tsarina or her footwear until after an interminable sequence in which Solokha's suitors get trussed up in sacks. Finally, a festive conflagration warms Oxana up; she promises her hand to Vakula if he can bring her slippers that the Tsarina might wear. Vakula isn't up to the task and runs away.

All this takes the best part of an hour and a half, mitigated only by some, frankly, pretty standard Tchaik tunes. The worst is yet to come however as the second half (that's Act three of four) opens with a corps de ballet dancing as water nymphs to the sparodic accompaniment of a grotesque water goblin begging for some quiet. I was begging for some plot development, or at least a single character I recognised from the first half.

Then Vakula appears, distracted from his sulking by the song and dance and, in the background up pops the devil. You'll forgive me for thinking things were about to come together. Instead, in not so much a handbrake turn of plotting as a quantum sidestep Vakula goes form being captive to captor and demands the devil take him to St Petersburg to fetch some slippers - which they do and return to a happy ending. Almost as quickly as that. Naturally, inbetween, we are treated to further ballet and Cossak dancing.

This opera is extremely silly. It is to the Royal Opera's credit that they treat it at once without knowing irony but without even a hint of seriousness. The devil and his demonic cohorts pose no threat throughout the opera and, with their rather useful tails, help the plot to move from one inert, sugar-iced set-piece to the next. In those set pieces we hear some good singing (Diadkova's Solotka, Grivnov's Vakula) some ok singing (Guryakova's Oxana, the night I went, and Vladimir Matorin's Chub) and the reliable chorus and orchestra of the Opera wringing something musical out of a strictly functional score. Even to this untutored commentator, the dancing seems to pay lip-service to its interpolated sequences, although the finessed performance brought the greatest reception from the audience. The set and costume design are the best reason to see the show.