For a Russian opera, directed by an American of Italian descent, there seems something decidedly English about this new production of Tchaikovsky’s The Tsarina’s Slippers. The fairlytale story, which features witches, devils, a lover’s dilemma, and almost slapstick farce, does not lend itself easily to innovative staging.
But although director Francesca Zambello has recognised this fact, her attempt to pull off a production that is both traditional and exciting is only partially successful. Mikhail Mokrov’s sets, which boast pictures of devils, clouds and wooden Russian towns, feel polished enough, but the blacksmith’s and witch’s huts are just too clean cut. There is something too straight about the deliberate slope given to the windows; too unimaginative about the way the flat barrels are painted to look three-dimensional. By applying greater stylistic integrity, many a genuine Russian production has pulled off the effect that these reserved sets have tried, but rather failed, to emulate.
Russian opera also has a unique approach to performance whereby the singing, acting and dancing fuse to create an energy that is lacking here. The required effect is alluded to in the interaction between Larissa Diadkova’s Solokha and Maxim Mikhailov’s Devil, as they dance, flirt and indulge in tail stroking. The overall pace, however, is too sedate, and, despite most of the cast being Russian, a scene that sees Solokha’s various would-be lovers hiding in sacks is not half as dynamic as it needs to be.
Nevertheless, Olga Guryakova’s Oxana is almost worth the ticket price alone. As she admires herself in the mirror and twiddles with her plaits, her voice resonates more and more effectively the higher she sings. Vsevolod Grivnov also gives a good account as Vakula, especially as he sings of his impending suicide by the water’s edge.
Things pick up after the interval precisely because the sets find their own voice, drawing on a variety of influences rather than just imitating one style. The patterned floor, on which the water-nymphs dance to Alastair Marriott’s choreography, seems more reminiscent of the Italian painter, Boccioni, than any Russian cubo-futurist. Then as we witness courtiers at an imperial ball, a gravity defying turn from four Russian cossacks, and an ending that sees dancing from ballerinas, devils and chorus alike, we are treated to the exuberant spectacle we have longed for all evening.
With the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, under the baton of Alexander Polianichko, also in fine form, there is ultimately enough within this production to justify a trip over the Christmas period. It may not quite leave you breathless, but it should provide an ample dose of good quality fun.