The score does not show Tchaikovsky at his most inspired, despite moments of true loveliness, but it must surely be Zambello’s approach that’s the problem. She goes all out for a traditional, seemingly Kirov-inspired, staging, complete with painted flats, follow-spots and rhubarbing peasants.
There’s nothing wrong with that once in a while, and it’s probably entirely appropriate for a show that should draw children in and get them hooked on opera and ballet at an early age. Unfortunately, it falls flat here a lot of the time and even scenes of great comic potential, such as the four fat suitors forced, like so many Falstaffs, to dive into sacks to avoid detection, limp somewhat.
The director’s eye seems to be more on marshalling her magnificent resources than finding anything in the text, not that one would expect a deep and meaningful reading of a fantasy in which witches fly, demons cavort and a pact with the devil seems to have no lasting consequences.
The designs (Mikhail Mokrov sets and Tatiana Noginova costumes) are truly spectacular – except perhaps for the insipid underwater ballet that opens the second half – and there are plenty of opportunities for those audiences who want to applaud the scenery.
There’s not a lot wrong with the singing either, with star turns from Olga Guryakova as the vain, silly Oxana and Vsevolod Grivnov as a sturdy and harmonious blacksmith, Vakula, whose impassioned outpourings of love are strengthened by the bite of frustration and despair.
Maxim Mokhailov is an appealingly comic devil and Sergei Leiferkus luxury casting as His Highness, with one big number in the St Petersburg court scene. Larissa Diadkova’s fruity witch Solokha has one of the highlights of the evening in her Act IV duet of lamentation with Guryakova.
Alexander Polianichko‘s conducting is smooth and lush but could have a bit more sparkle, which might lift things, while the (almost) all-Russian cast, conductor and creative team lend an air of authenticity throughout.
The story, like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve, is drawn from a Gogol story and is a lively Ukrainian folktale with plenty of ballet interludes, maypole prancing and whirling Cossacks, making for a complete package of the arts.
The Tsarina’s Slippers isn’t likely to knock The Nutcracker off its Christmas pedestal just yet, but if the performance grows sufficiently it could well become a standard part of the traditional festive repertoire. Most of the ingredients for a magical family entertainment are there and a bit more oomph could do it.
The Tsarina’s Slippers will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 5 December at 6.30pm and on BBC 2 over the Christmas period.