18 November 2009

The Tsarina's Slippers - Royal Opera House, Friday 20th November 2009


As the witch Solokha admires the beauty of the moon, the Devil comes and flirts with her. He has come to the village to take revenge on her son Vakula who has painted an insulting image of him on the church wall.The Devil invokes a huge snow storm to cause confusion in the village, making the moon disappear so that he can steal it. He and Solokha ride into the sky on their broomsticks.The villagers, Chub and Panas, get lost in the blizzard below.

Oksana, the village beauty, is at home admiring herself in the mirror. Vakula arrives and declares his love for her but she ignores him. Chub, Oksana's father, and his friend Panas stumble in. In the dark of the blizzard, Vakula does not recognise them and kicks them out, believing them to be intruders.

Solokha and the Devil return from their broomstick ride and the Devil tries to seduce her. There is a knock at the door. It is the Mayor who has also come to woo Solokha; the Devil hides in a sack so he won't be found. There is another knock at the door, and the Mayor hides in a sack. It is the school teacher, he has also come to woo Solokha, and he also hides in a sack. Then Chub enters, also intent on wooing Solokha, he too conceals himself in a sack.Finally Vakula comes in to see his mother. He is miserable after being rejected by Oksana. He exits, carrying off all the sacks.

The villagers dance to celebrate Christmas Eve and one of the boys presents his girlfriend with a pair of slippers. Oksana is jealous and challenges Vakula to fetch her the Tsarina’s slippers. In return, she says, she will marry him. He sets off in despair, leaving all but one of the sacks behind. Solokha’s lovers (except the devil) all pop out of the abandoned bags - to everyone’s surprise.Vakula is so dejected that he contemplates throwing himself in the lake. Just as he is about to fling himself in the water, the Devil pops out of the last sack he has been carrying and offers him a deal: he will help Vakula get the Tsarina’s slippers in exchange for his soul. They fly to St Petersburg to find the Tsarina: Catherine the Great. They enter the palace where a great ball is underway. They marvel at the dancing, steal the Tsarina’s slippers and leave.

Back in the village, both Solokha and Oksana grieve for Vakula believing he has drowned himself in the lake. Vakula appears and they are overjoyed.Vakula offers Oksana the slippers and she agrees to marry him, declaring that it is he she wants – not the slippers.

Creative team:
Composer: Tchiakovsky
Director- Francesca Zambello
Set Designer- Mikhail Mokrov
Costume Designs- Tatiana Noginova
Lighting Designer- Rick Fisher
Choreography -Alastair Marriott

Oxana -Olga Guryakova
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

Anyone who’s been following this blog for a while ( I HOPE there are more than six; six readers after four years of hard slog does seem a little disappointing, particularly when there are so many people fawning over the likes of the West End Whingers) will know that I don’t “do” opera. The idea of sitting for three hours listening to people sing at each other in Foreign while disguised as their maid or taking an inordinate amount of time to die ain’t really my idea of fun. So it was with a great deal of trepidation that I pencilled this outing onto the calendar in the kitchen a while back. Still, thought I, its Tchaikovsky, so there will be something to hum along to, at least, as well as a vaguely festive storyline (I see that the Royal Ballet are rolling out their incredibly dreary Nutcracker AGAIN this year, while the Birmingham Royal do their fantastic version for those people fortunate enough to live within striking distance of the Midlands). There was a slight contretemps when I announced to Him Indoors that at least Tchiakovsky might be vaguely hummable; he countered with “No, its by Rimsky-Korsakov” and we argued back and forth until an old programme was unearthed from god knows where of “Christmas Eve [the alternate title of the piece] by Rimsky-Korsakov”. I went and had a sulk until I read in the programme a couple of hours later that the original story had been turned into operas by four different composers, among them Tchaikovsky, at which point I became unbearably smug for another couple of hours.

The Opera House was completely and utterly packed out; loads of Russians and people with those insufferable little Jocastas and Tarquins that you get every time something vaguely child-friendly is on there. Standing room only. Sold out for the entire run. All of which makes what happened in the following three hours somewhat of a let-down. Somehow the whole thing didn’t gel. Yes, it was charmingly costumed and the whole thing looked authentically “Russian” in the manner of those little black lacquerwork boxes you get with pictures from Russian fairy tales on them. Yes, there were some very good voices on the stage (but also, it has to be said, a couple of the cast who were distinctly off form). But it looked rather under-rehearsed, with some poor staging of the chorus scenes; people didn’t look as if they knew exactly where they should be standing and there was a lot of vague milling about and gesticulating as a result. Scenes inside houses were very cramped, staged on small “floating” sets plonked at the front of the stage. Lots of opportunities for comedy were missed. Important parts of the story seemed to have been cut in favour of long, pointless recitatives which did nothing to progress it and the ballet sections seemed very badly placed on the stage. The only saving grace for me was, essentially, the final act, which exploded onto the stage as if the lid had popped off a toy box on Christmas morning. Finally the entire thing took on some life and everyone on stage looked like they were having fun. There was a dancing bear (in pointe shoes, a tiara and a tutu), lots of chorus movement, a panto-style walk-down of all the cast, a wonderful sunburst set and the campest exit for the hero and heroine I think I’ve ever seen in an opera; both piled into an enormous gold slipper which was on runners like a sledge. And then it was over.

I felt a bit underwhelmed really and not a little cheated of what I expected to be a fun night out. The pro critics of all the major newspapers have been incredibly sniffy about the entire production; this is just as expected. I sometimes wonder whether opera critics are trained not to like anything they consider "populist". OK, the evening wasn't fabulous, but it wasn't that bad.

What the critics thought:





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