The Tsarina's Slippers, Royal Opera House, London
Cecilia Bartoli/Il Giardino Armonico, Barbican Hall, London

A family show fails to live up to its sparkly promise at the Royal Opera House, but Bartoli is brilliant

For some women, it starts with ballet shoes. For others, it's the gleam of patent Mary Janes. In my case, it was a pair of silver stilettos, carefully preserved by my grandmother since the 1950s.

Most of us have fallen for impractical footwear at one point or another, that leather-scented, slippery-soled promise of a more glamorous life. My friend the Country Mouse has several decades of kitten heels and slingbacks, mules and platforms, all wrapped in tissue and stored in famous-name boxes. But she did not enjoy The Tsarina's Slippers and neither did I.

Cherevichki, to give Tchaikovsky's opera its proper name, best translates as "Little Boots". Adapted from Gogol's story, The Night Before Christmas, it was a flop in its first incarnation. Revised in 1885, it remains a flop, albeit one in which the genius of Onegin and The Queen of Spades can be heard fleetingly. Adrift in a sentimentalised vision of 18th-century rural Ukraine, Tchaikovsky veers between lending Gogol's characters a crude version of his own, peach-skinned sensibility and depicting them as Michelin-waisted minstrels of serfdom, too busy carolling and canoodling to consider revolt.

Aimed at a family audience, Francesca Zambello's flat-footed Royal Opera House production takes the opera at face value, without irony. A lot of money has been spent on Tatiana Noginova's costume designs and Mikhail Mokrov's sets, which resemble a pop-up book. There are two ballets choreographed by Alastair Marriott (the Ondine fantasy by the banks of the Dnepr and the Petipa routine in St Petersburg), a vast effigy of Catherine the Great, four Cossack dancers, six demons, a bear, a golden sledge in the shape of a slipper, more babushkas than you could shake a hammer and sickle at, and several child actors who are pushed to the front as a human shield against tepid applause.

In an age when even Basil Brush is spritzed with irony, this animated Christmas window display is anomalous. I'm not suggesting that a landscape of rusting tractors would be ideal for Covent Garden. But I bet that rural Ukraine is full of girls who dream of owning a pair of Jimmy Choos and I'm not convinced that Zambello understands what a potent symbol of aspiration shoes can be. Tucked up in her cosy cottage, Olga Guryakova's squally Oxana is a spoilt little madam whose Tatyana moment in Act IV comes too late to win our sympathy. Despatched to find the fantastical footwear, Vsevolod Grivnov's noisy Vakula is as graceless as his sweetheart is charmless: a grinning lunk I'd barely trust to buy his own socks. There's more warmth in Zambello's characterisation of Solokha (Larissa Diadkova) and the Devil (Maxim Mikhailov), though again the singing lacks charm and the sack-gag falls flat.

Vocally, the finest performance comes from Changhan Lim (Wood Goblin). Even Sergei Leiferkus (His Highness) seems to have coated his vocal cords with spray-starch, though the neo-classical court music allows the orchestra to play with delicacy under Mikhail Mokrov's otherwise merciless beat. Too often dismissed as the go-to person when you need to work with animals and children, Zambello has done some highly sophisticated work in the past. In The Tsarina's Slippers, however, she has underestimated the sophistication of even the youngest audience members.

Does Christian Louboutin do thigh-boots? A flash of scarlet sole as Cecilia Bartoli stamped her feet to the tempest of Porpora's "Come nave" indicated he might. Sweeping on to the Barbican stage in breeches and cape, this was the mezzo reborn as a castrato: mutilated model of virility, poignant muse, operatic hero and victim of a fetish for unbroken voices that is said to have resulted in as many as 4,000 castrations of pre-pubescent boys in one year.

Sacrificium, Bartoli's meticulously researched programme of music written for the castrati of Naples, traced the history of the castrato voice in showcase arias by Porpora, Graun, Caldara and Broschi, brother of the most famous castrato, Farinelli. Her technique now marinaded in historical treatises, Bartoli's tiny voice has receded, bird-like, into her throat; still exquisitely controlled, still dazzling in fioritura, the sobbing "Parto, ti lascio, o cara" still indefatigably sincere. The psychological aspects of this obsession are fascinating. But all the loneliness and triumph of one who can do nothing but sing was here, accompanied brilliantly by Il Giardino Armonico, and what ravishing music.

'The Tsarina's Slippers': (020-7304 4000) to 8 Dec

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing