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

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game