The words Tchaikovsky and Comedy don’t usually occur in the same sentence – and you may still be of that opinion after sitting through this expensively gift-wrapped but decidedly bland and singularly unfunny staging of the composer’s big-hearted Gogol adaptation.
Actually The Tsarina’s Slippers is described as “Comic-Fantastic” but director Francesca Zambello and her designers Mikhail Mokrov (sets) and Tatiana Noginova (costumes) don’t really deliver on the “fantastic’, either. It’s pretty as a picture, no question – an animated pop-up book of naïve and colourful charm - but today’s children of all ages need wit and invention and a few magic tricks to keep them intrigued. Don’t hold your breath, is all I can say.
Good tunes, though, I can promise. As Alexander Polianichko unveils a prelude as warm-hearted and homespun as anything Tchaikovsky has given us, there’s a momentary shiver of menace as the composer reminds us that there are supernatural forces at work this Christmas. But such devilish disquiet is quickly shrugged off and a burgeoning tune, as gorgeous they come from this source, portends good nature and happy endings. There’s Imperial splendour, too, the promise of courtly festivities from this greatest of ballet composers. All that remains is to match the sounds coming out of the pit with the story unfolding on stage. And that’s where the evening unravels.
The first missed opportunity is the relationship between the Witch Solokha (the indefatigable Larissa Diadkova) and the Devil (Maxim Mikhailov). Quite apart from being no match vocally (Mikhailov was hopelessly over-parted here) we might have expected Zambello to exploit the double-trouble-act potential of the pairing. The Devil coming on to a Witch (especially one with such a fetching moustache) has such unsavoury possibilities. But their business seemed so cheesy and unfocused as if both performers had simply been left to their bad old St. Petersburg devices with Mikhailov’s entire character reduced to the twirling of his tail. Tail-twirling is a big feature of the show – but again the eagerly anticipated chorus line of devils never really materialises.
Zambello seems to have surrendered responsibility for this show to her designers and choreographer with the result that her largely Russian cast are too often invited to fall back on the kind of meaningless mugging that became such a feature of the opera tradition in Russia. The “Sack Scene” in Solokha’s house, where a succession of admirers are in turn hurriedly hidden as the next comes knocking at the door, did well to draw even a spattering of titters.
So did any of the singing or dancing save the day? Well, Royal Ballet dancers were on hand lending sporadic elegance to choreographer Alastair Marriott’s diaphanous riverdance for the spirits of the Enchanted Lake and there was a moment of much-needed poignancy where the unlikely hero Vakula’s lament was echoed in dance by a water nymph offering a hand to eternity.
St. Petersburg then brought a lavishly dressed Imperial promenade and, better yet, an energetic troupe of dancing Cossacks who emerged in a rare moment of wit from beneath the skirts of a huge golden effigy of the Tsarina.
But expensive Christmas presents are not necessarily the most appreciated and this endearing tale of everyday Russian folk smacked of a kind of retro cuteness. The singing was decidedly mixed, too, with the only real distinction coming from the Vakula of Vsevolod Grivnov – a winning and impassioned tenor with a thrilling thrust to the voice – and the usual gallery of character basses. Olga Guryakova’s Oxana, so vibrant in the middle-voice, was distressingly unruly and unfocussed at the top: a classic case of a promising Russian singer heading for burn-out before her time.
Since it’s Christmas I’ve added a third star.