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Cherevichki in London

It's just come to my attention that BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting a rare complete performance of Tchaikovsky's opera Cherevichki tonight (Saturday 5 December) at 18.00 GMT. Listeners outside the UK should be able to listen through the BBC Radio 3 website:

Brett Langston

From the Royal Opera House newsletter:

The Tsarina's Slippers [Cherevichki] will be broadcast on BBC2 at 2.15pm on Christmas Eve.

Julia Curl

According to my information, the Royal Opera had staged "Cherevicki" (The Shoes") in November 2009. If this is correct, I would love to know how successful that production has been.

If any of you were lucky enough to be at the Covent Garden on this performance, could you please share your impressions. Also if anyone had come across reviews, reports, articles on this production, please send us a link (s).


A. Geidelberg

Royal Opera House performed 19 consecutive performances of Tchaikovsky works Nov/Dec - Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker and Tsarina’s Slippers (as they called it).

Three stars seems about right – some of the singing could have been better, there was a general lack of charm, more in your face Disney – with a chance for the audience to clap along to the reprieve at the end while the performers took their curtain calls. The first part dragged a bit at nearly 90 minutes, although the sack scene was well received. Overhearing audience comments at the end of the evening the second part was more of a hit - a lot of this was taken up with dancing by Royal Ballet members. Hopefully the ROH will bring it back again in a couple of years as the performances were sold out, and tighten up the production.

I was lucky enough to be at the UK premier of Cherevichki at Morley College in London – must be over 25 years ago. This was a simple production by an adult education college, performed with enthusiasm and charm. The Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London performed the work in 1999 which I also managed to catch and I found this brief review.

There was much to applaud in the Guildhall School of Music and Drama's production of Tchaikovsky's Cherevichki, or The Tsarina's Shoes, in Arthur Jacobs' English translation, a four-act 1885 reworking and revision of the composer's 1874 Vakula the Smith. Amongst the plaudits was the excellent production of Stephen Medcalf, the School's Resident Producer, which was excellent in most respects. To this should be added the choreography of Maxine Braham, with pupils of the London Contemporary Dance School in magnificent form.

Julia Curl

Thank you most kindly Julia for sharing so much of your knowledge on the recent production of "Cherevichki" by the ROH.

A. Geidelberg

They probably gave a different title for commercial reasons - The Tsarina’s Slippers probably sounding more familiar/attractive to the audience than Cherevichki… I prefer Cherevichki anyway. And they probably took the idea of repeating the ending during the applause from the Cagliari performance of 2000. They’ve also used this recording for the trailer… great recording by the way!

Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to see the opera. I just loved the scenery in the pictures! But I did listen to it thanks to Mr Langston’s link to the BBC 3 radio. I think I liked the voices, if I remember well... but one cannot judge a performance only listening of course. Unfortunately they have cut some parts. For example the koliadki of the chorus from Act II was horribly abridged (from six minutes to probably one and a half). I was very disappointed since it’s a really beautiful chorus. They’ve also cut the modulating introduction to the Polonaise of Act III, a beautiful one minute crescendo that builds up to the Polonaise... I think they should have played the ‘complete’ opera since it is rarely performed, but anyway. In two years I sure will go and see this!

Also, I don't remember where I read this, but they are going to release a DVD of the performance at the end of the year.

Thanks for all the links!

Bryan Chahla

Further to the replies to A. Geidelberg's inquiry I would like to give my own reactions to the Royal Opera House production of Cherevichki, or 'The Tsarina's Slippers', as the (notoriously difficult-to-translate) title was rendered (quite advisedly as the opera's plot was thereby put in a nutshell). I saw the performance on Dec 1st. It was, to my mind, a meticulously well judged artistic response to the life-enhancing musical richness and subtlety of Tchaikovsky's score. While it is certainly true to say that the opera does not emphasise its comic categorisation - there are only a few genuinely comic moments, and nothing in the field of high comedy - something about this work makes one feel heartened at a very deep level. The Gogol tale upon which it is based, Christmas Eve from Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, seems as high in the esteem of the Russians as is Dickens's A Christmas Carol in that of the English. Its central point is that the symbolisation of love is merely a spurious proof of it; the heroine's demand to her would-be lover that he prove himself by bringing her the very cherevichki worn by the Tsarina becomes, in due course, the heroine's humiliation. Once Vakula has brought her what she requested she is too chastened by the faux pas of her request to accept the footwear.

The triumph of this remarkable production was its focus upon the folk aspect. The director, Francesca Zambello, is quoted in the accompanying programme booklet as having aimed 'to keep a kind of naive folkloric style, keep it in the scale of the Gogol short story with its mix of fantasy and reality'. The set designs, by Mikhail Mokrov, and costumes, by Tatiana Noginova, convey this aim with great sensitivity.

The opportunity to view the work televised (BBC 2, Christmas Eve) will enable everyone to see the superb melding of Gogol and Tchaikovsky's representation of the underlying sense of continuity in the folk ethos, and how wonderfully this has been realised in this production.

Henry Zajaczkowski

Thanks to a kind assistance by Julia Curl, many of us, who had no opportunity to be in the audience of Covent Garden, were able to read online the reviews of this ROH production.

It appears that all three reviews were presented by professional music critics. My experience with music critics, shared by many of my fellow music lovers, has been, that when a theatrical production or a concert performance attracts a genuine appreciation by the audience, they (critics) invariably present it in an aspect, that is quite out of tune with impressions gained by general public, the main entity of the entire music writing/performing process.

I noticed that there is no agreement amongst those three critics on which elements of the production deserve praises, and which need to be put under a microscope of harsher criticism.

Thus Tim Ashley of "The Guardian" concentrates on criticizing Francesca Zambello, the stage Director.

Edward Sackerson of "The Independent" finds the opera "unfunny" and singing uneven. A voice projection however can often vary between singers, engaged in the same production. In a recent production of "Turandot" at the Metropolitan, Marina Poplavskaya (mezzo) was clearly overpowered by Maria Gulegina, singing the title part.

Richard Morrison of "The Times" on the other hand liked the staging, design, costumes and the vocal performance. He was however unkind to Tchaikovsky, calling the opera " ... a laugh of an undertaker ... "

It was refreshing therefore to read the posting by Henry Zajaczkovski, who presented his view of the production as an authentic and highly artistic work of a group of talented professional performers.

Now I look forward to the release of a DVD recording of this production. So far I have a bad quality DVD of the 2000 Cagliary production. I find it as been a very good work from the musical and artistic point of view. But the decision to cut one character, that of the Empress had spoiled completely the whole zest of the Gigol's plot, thus making the finale much weaker that it was designed by Tchaikovsky.

Alexander Geidelberg

At long last I have been able to see and listen to a recording of this production. And my impressions are not much different from those by Bryan Chahla and Henry Zajaczkowski.

Mr. Chahla was right. The producers made a number of cuts, that in my view affect quite significantly the overall perception of this Tchaikovsky's work. As I mentioned in my early posting, the most significant cut in the 2000 Cagliari production was that of the character of the Empress. This goes quite against the Gogol's portrayal of a direct dialogue between Vakula and the Empress.

The ROH production has the same negative feature. On top of that cut, the dialogue Vakula - Cossacs at the beginning of the Palace scene has "vanished" as well.

Considering that "Cherevichki" ("The Shoes") is a comic opera, where every word is important, no wonder that some observers lament a lack of comic content in this particular production.

Despite however all these comments, I watched the opera with a great pleasure and can recommend it to all of you.

Alexander Geidelberg

The Royal Opera House advertises now

a DVD recording of this production (see a link below)

The price tag is £24.99.

A. Geidelberg

Shame about the cuts. For some reason these focused on some of the best music in the opera. E.g the orchestral transition after the storm.

What were they thinking? Also in the broadcast we only got the last few bars of the overture. Is this the case with the DVD?


Norman Armstrong

Well...I bought an older DVD from Italy, the version of the CD with Rozhdestvensky. It is an unofficial version, see Premiere opera. The quality is not the best. No subtitles either.

I have the two DVDs....well...I have three different, the frist was on VHS I transferred to DVD....uncomplet...

Martin Pitchon

My own feeling about this opera is that it is too ethnic to have a broad appeal to audiences outside sounds to me like a collection of Little Russian folk songs...I have the old Ultraphone LP recording with Melik-Pashaev conducting the Bolshoi Opera which I bought over thirty years ago...while it may register with Russian audiences it simply doesn't have the universality say of his ballets....and in general Tchaikovsky's operas to me are lacking in drama unlike so much of his best instrumental music...

Albert Gasparo

The dvd of this production does include the complete overture. The idea of clapping to the reprise of the ‘big’ tune at the end does not originate in the Cagliari production but in that of the Wexford Festival in 1993 which was produced by Francesca Zambello. Two of the Covent Garden singers were in that Wexford production which I saw – and it was brilliant. The audience was quite overwhelmed by the opera – and in those days there were no surtitles!

I have a reasonable dvd of the Cagliari production which I think is much better than the Covent Garden one. It is superbly staged and the singing is excellent.

Regarding cuts. The small cuts at Covent Garden are unfortunate and are not made in Cagliari. However A.Geidelberg is wrong about a scene with the Empress being cut. There is no scene with the Empress. She might very well appear in Gogol’s story but the very idea of her appearing on the stage in Tsarist times is absurd and would never have got past the censor. The whole idea of the character His Excellency is to get over this problem. It is not absolutely convincing but Tchaikovsky had no option. However, all three productions referred to overcome this problem in rather ingenious ways. At Wexford there was a silhouetted outline of the Empress on the backdrop; at Covent Garden this became a huge golden effigy which dominated the stage (I’ve forgotten what happened at Cagliari but remember thinking it was rather good). Hopefully the Cagliari performance will eventually by officially issued on dvd (this production was also seen at La Scala a year later).

Joseph Brand

According to the recent posting by J. Brand, I was wrong when I claimed that both Cagliari and Covent Garden productions missed out on one character - that of the Empress. I must admit I was surprised to learn that. I based my claim on what I believed to be an authentic source, and I will mention it at the end of this posting.

The cut in question relates to the No.21 (Minuette) in the Act 3. Two vocal dialogues take place there. The first one is between His Grace and Vakula, where Vakula is presented with a pair of fine shoes. The second dialogue is between His Grace and Cossacs, where he asks the Cossacs to confirm that nobody gets married in their land (Transrapids in the upper reaches of Dnieper).

I decided to dig deeper and try to find out whether my source of information is that inaccurate. First, I checked the Gogol's short story.  And indeed in Gogol's story both dialogues are lead by the Empress.. Then on the IMSLP website I found a photocopy of the vocal score,_Pyotr_Ilyich%29#Vocal_Scores

According to the title page, this score was published by Jurgenson in Moscow in 1901. The cast page makes no mention of the Empress. In the Act 3, the Minuette scene is in the 240 -245 bracket. The two vocal dialogues mentioned above are lead by His Grace.

So J. Brand was right, and I am very grateful to him for pointing out at my erroneous comments regarding the cut.

Thus both creators of the opera Polonski and Tchaikovsky decided to divert this part in the libretto from the original storyline by Gogol. It is a common practice to introduce a number of significant changes, when a literary work is adopted for a theatrical presentation. The libretto of "The Queen of Spades" has very little in common with the original short story by A. Pushkin.

J. Brand suggests that considerations of censorship influenced Y. Polonski not to portray royals on the stage. This suggestion appears to be plausible. It can not however be accepted without further study.

Many of 19 century Russian operas by Glinka, Mussorgski, Verstovski, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov feature members of royal families amongst their characters. In "The Queen of Spades" Tchaikovsky himself did not hesitate to put the same Empress on the stage in the Act 2. So far the reason(s) behind this diversion from the Gogol's story remains an open-ended question.

One of realistic attempts to make some progress in this particular area, would be to send an e-mail to Galina Belonovich, the Director of the House-Museum. In my experience she is very obliging and happy to share her vast knowledge on the subject of her study.

The absence of the Empress from the cast, complicates the task of producers and stage directors. This is because the Gogol's storyline is so finely tuned that any change puts it off-balance to the detriment of perception by spectators. And the scene were Vakula gets the shoes straight from the Empress is a pivotal in the story. J. Brand mentioned lighting design, effigy and other ruses akin to doll theaters in Wexford, Cagliari and Covent Garden productions. All these attempts make a little impact on the understanding of the action.

This problem was resolved virtually effortlessly when in 1948 Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow staged this opera, conducted by Alexander Melik-Pashaev. He simply reverted to the Gogol's storyline, introduced a new character that of the Empress and transposed the vocal part in No.21 from bass-baritone to mezzo-soprano.

In a CD album made by Aquarius [ AQR176A&B-2 ] the part of the Empress is superbly sang by O. Insarova. My first introduction to the opera was through this CD recording. I hope you readers can excuse me for believing that this 1948 production represents an uncut version of the Tchaikovsky work.

I still maintain that this production by Melik-Pashaev is an example to follow

A. Geidelberg

Thank you Mr.Geidelberg for your interesting response to my contribution. I’d certainly like to get hold of the Aquarius recording you mention. It is also worth looking up the relevent passages referring to this opera in David Brown’s excellent (even if somewhat opinionated) huge volume on Tchaikovsky. He is pretty good on the factual side and gives detailed accounts of plot and music.

Regarding the Empress appearing in The Queen of Spades. Again I don’t think this is right for the same censorship reasons as before. If the ballroom scene in act two is staged correctly (as it rarely is) the curtain should fall at the moment the Empress would appear – a brilliant example of Tchaikovsky’s dramatic sense. When I first saw this opera at Covent Garden in 1956 conducted by Kubelik this is exactly what happened and it is absolutely thrilling. The dvd of the Glyndebourne production suggests something similar. Modern directors are reluctant to raise the curtain or let the curtain close at the point requested by a composer.

Joseph Brand

In the last two contributions Joseph Brand and myself tried to get some sense out of the fact that the libretto/score of “Cherevichki” differs at the 211-212 bracket so dramatically from the Gogl’s story. Specifically what was the reason to leave the Empress out of the score. This character is essential to the original storyline.

J. Brand suggested that censorship considerations prevailed when the librettist and composer prepared its final version.  I accepted readily this suggestion. Some doubts however still remained. I have made an enquiry on this subject to the Director of the House-Museum. Regrettably however she did not respond. And I was quite inclined not to pursue this issue any longer.

Quite recently however, I come across another source of reference, that throws a somewhat different light on the actual restrictions that censors at the time could potentially impose on the contents of the libretto.

I was listening to an audio recording of a broadcast by Radio Orpheus. This station is dedicated to educational broadcasting on the subject of classical music. One of their 33 programs called “Ball” presented recently a history of composition of the opera “The Christmas Night” by N. Rimsky-Korsakov. According to a superb presentation by the host Irena Klenskaya, the libretto is based on exactly the same story by N. Gogol, that been used earlier for “Cherevichki” . The composer nurtured for many years plans to write his own opera on this subject. However out of respect for Tchaikovsky he did not attempt to do that.

In a couple of years following the Tchaikovsky departure, Rimsky-Korsakov decided that the time was right, and his opera should become a reality. He disliked the Polonsky’s libretto, and a brand new libretto was adopted for his opera . He insisted that his opera is “The Christmas Night” and has very little in common with “Vakula” or “Cherevichki”. Indeed while “Cherevichki” is essentially a love story, “The Christmas Night” libretto is full of witchcraft and supernatural tricks. That was quite consistent with Rimsky-Korsakov’s keen interest in things supernatural, so vividly depicted in his “Mlada’, “The Golden Cockrell”, “Invisible City Of Kitezh and Phevronia” and especially in “The May Night” based again of a Gogol’s story.

The whole project progressed quite well, and soon final dress rehearsals were conducted. In the scene under our consideration, Rimsky-Korsakov decided not to divert from the original storyline and retained the character of the Empress. A member of the Royal family was present at the rehearsal and objected to the scene where the Empress talks to a peasant (Vakula). The composer was absolutely furious and left a message in his diary: “Since when His Grace is in charge of Her Majesty’s wardrobe ? ".

Based on this episode, my tentative feeling being that if a theatrical production featured royals, their actions, rather than the appearance itself were actually scrutinised by censors .

The following is a link to that audio recording by Radio Orpheus. To open up this audio file, I had to download Google Chrome. 

When you get the page, scroll to the bottom until you see the progress bar and click on the

“Play” button.

A. Geidelberg
05/08/2012 13:50

Thank you Mr.Geidelberg for your research. As you’ve discovered only in the Rimsky does the Empress appear. Rimsky’s version of Christmas Eve dates from after Tchaikovsky’s death about 20 years after the original Vakula the Smith when censorship was much stricter. Tchaikovsky eventually had close ties with members of the imperial family whereas Rimsky was always an outsider. David Brown’s four volume life and works of Tchaikovsky discusses in some detail the structure of Cherevicki and the original Vakula the Smith.

Rimsky’s opera is delightful in a different way to Tchaikovsky’s and they actually complement one another. English National Opera did a splendidly lavish production of the Rimsky in the 1980s with Cheryl Barker, Ann Marie Owens and Richard Margison cond.Mark Elder and it was superb. It had been intended later to use the same scenery and costumes for Tchaikovsky’s version in the original (Vakula) but the critics were lukewarm so this never happened and the production was destroyed. The critics were largely lukewarm about the Covent Garden Cherevicki so that will probably not be revived.

I have a splendid cd recording of Rimsky’s Christmas Eve on a label called Lyrica. It was recorded in 1947 in Moscow conducted by Golovanov , in excellent sound for the time and superbly sung. Brilliant Classics has just released in the UK the Cagliari Cherevicki at a ridiculously low price in superb sound. It is a very fine performance and absolutely complete! Brilliant Classics has just announced at the same low price the Cagliari Opritchnik. I’ve been in touch with the original distributor of these performances, Dynamic, who told me that though Cherevicki was televised Rozhdestvensky would not sanction a DVD of it and Opritchnik was not televised.

Finally regarding appearances on stage of members of the imperial family. I think I’m right in saying only pre-Romanovs could be depicted, e.g. Boris Godunov. In Khovanschina Peter the Great and other members are mentioned but they do not appear. Same in Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa and Glinka’s Life for the Tsar.

It is exciting to note that Tchaikovsky’s Enchantress has just been done in Antwerp and Ghent (which I saw) and repeated in Erfurt. It is currently in repertory at the Bolshoi in Moscow in what looks from the photos a fine traditional production. the Enchantress is also to be produced in the 2013/14 season at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. Things are certainly looking up for this wonderful opera.

Joseph Brand
18/08/2012 23:13

As with anything involving Russian bureaucracy, whether in tsarist or post-tsarist times, censorship was often unpredictably handled, sometimes remarkably so.

Gerald Abraham gives this description of Tsar Nikolay I's edict of 1837: 'pre-Romanov Russian rulers might be represented on the stage in drama or tragedy but not in opera [Abraham's italics], since it would never do for a tsar to be shown doing anything so undignified as singing.' And indeed, the role of Ivan the Terrible (a pre-Romanov Tsar) was removed by the censor from Tchaikovsky's opera The Oprichnik, but the same monarch does appear in Rimsky-Korsakov's The Maid of Pskov as the result of the composer's going down what Abraham amusingly calls ' a typically Russian avenue. He turned to his new friend, the Minister of Marine. Krabbe was as good as his word; the machinery of Court favouritism began to work, and the interest of the Grand Duke Constantine Nikolaevich, the Tsar's [i.e. Alexander II's] brother, was enlisted on behalf of the new opera.' (Gerald Abraham, Rimsky-Korsakov: A Short Biography (London, 1945), p.47)

As concerns the Romanov period of rulers, Catherine the Great (the German wife of Peter III who ascended the throne after the coup that disposed of him) does not appear in Tchaikovsky's Vakula the Smith (or the revised version,Cherevichki). As the librettist, Polonsky, had been commissioned by a member of the royal family, the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, to write the libretto in the first place, it would of course in any case have been tactless of him to include the empress in the list of characters, and her function is carried out by an anonymous royal personage. Rimsky-Korsakov devised his own libretto for Christmas Eve (based on the same Gogol story used by Polonsky), and included a part for Catherine II. However, as Abraham relates, in rehearsal the opera was seen by 'the Grand Dukes Vladimir Alexandrovich and Michael Nikolaevich. The two princes were outraged almost beyond words at finding [Catherine the Great] portrayed upon the the interval [the Grand Duke Vladimir] hastened behind the scenes and, sarcastically addressing the singer who had taken the part, said, "You are now my great-grandmother, I perceive"'. Abraham adds, 'The Tsar [Nikolay II, the last of the Romanov, or indeed any, tsars] forthwith withdrew his permission for the production in that form and Vsevolozhsky, the Director, in despair, saved the situation by "translating" the mezzo-soprano "Tsaritsa" ...into a baritone "Serene Highness", thereby reducing the central incident of the plot to absurdity'.(Pages 101-2 of the biography)

The premiere of Christmas Eve (in 1895) therefore laboured under the disadvantage of the omission of Catherine the Great from the dramatis personae, though of course modern productions reinstate her.

On a different matter, Mr. Brand says of ongoing productions of Tchaikovsky's The Enchantress, 'Things are certainly looking up for this wonderful opera.' One can only hope that, with the necessary momentum, it may indeed become established as a repertory item. On the execrable and stereotyped response of the British press to the Francesca Zambello production of 'The Tsarina's Slippers' (Cherevichki), it may be refreshing to compare it with these comments by Tim Ashley. Reviewing the concert performance conducted by Valery Gergiev at The Royal Festival Hall fourteen years ago, he wrote: 'the opera [is] back on the map [and he mentions its] astonishing emotional and dramatic range.' (The Guardian newspaper, 2 Feb. 1998, p.2)

Henry Zajaczkowski
21/08/2012 14:32

A brief addition to my comments from yesterday, as I see a possible ambiguity on re-reading the last paragraph. Tim Ashley was of course reviewing Gergiev's performance of The Enchantress (the reference was not to any performance of Cherevichki, though it would be great to think that that work too could receive such a positive review, as it certainly is a remarkable enough opera).

Henry Zajaczkowski
22/08/2012 06:50

I would like to offer my thanks to Mr. H. Zajaczkowski for his clear and elaborate contribution to this discussion.

A. Geidelberg
22/08/2012 08:41

Whatever help my posting has been in this complex subject I am glad to have given and I appreciate Mr. Geidelberg's kind reply.

Henry Zajaczkowski
24/08/2012 08:05

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