Tchaikovsky's "Kuznets Vakula" (Vakula the smith) (1874), an opera in 3 acts, submitted for a competition (at which Tchaikovsky is said to have lobbied outrageously with the judges even though the names of the contestants were supposed to be secret), was first performed in St. Petersburg in 1876. Tchaikovsky was apparently dissatisfied with the overly symphonic nature of the writing, and extensively revised the score in 1885 as "Cherevichki" (The Slippers) (also known as "Les caprices d'Oxane", "The Empress's Slippers", and "The Little Shoes"), a comic-fantastic opera in 4 acts. (The shoes are actually high-heeled, narrow-toed women's holiday boots.)
Composed during Tchaikovsky's so-called "high nationalism" period, this work contains some of the most inventive and imaginative music that Tchaikovsky ever composed.
The libretto by Yakov Polonsky is based on Nikolay Gogol's "Noch' pered rozhdestvom" (Christmas Eve). In Act I, the widow Solokha agrees to help the Devil steal the moon. The Devil is angry with Solokha's son Vakula who painted an icon making fun of him, and decides to conjure up a snowstorm to prevent Vakula from seeing his beloved Oxana. While the storm rages, Solokha rides up to the sky and steals the moon, while Oxana's father Chub and the Deacon lose their way. Oxana is alone and lonely at home. She passes through several moods and the music follows her with gradually accelerating tempos. At one point, Vakula enters and watches her admiring herself. She teases him, he says he loves her. Chub comes back out of the storm, and Vakula, not recognizing him, chases him out by striking him. And then seeing what he has done Oxana sends Vakula away in a miserable state. Young people from the village come around singing Ukrainian Christmas carols. Oxana realizes she still loves Vakula.
In a bizarre and very humorous first scene of Act II, three men and the Devil wind up in three sacks at Solokha's hut after successively trying to seduce her, and Vakula winds up hauling the heavy sacks away. Outside three groups of carollers contend. Oxana shames Vakula into getting her the Tsaritsa's boots or else she won't marry him. He runs threatening suicide, leaving two bags which turn out to have the Deacon and Chub.
In Act III, a forest sprite warns water nymphs that Vakula is coming and wants to commit suicide. The Devil jumps out of Vakula's sack and tries to get his soul in exchange for Oxana but Vakula instead climbs on the Devil's back. Vakula forces the Devil to take him to St. Petersburg. The Devil deposits Vakula in the tsaritsa's court and disappears into the fireplace. Vakula joins a group of cossacks who are going to see the tsaritsa. In the hall of columns, a chorus sings the tsaritsa's praises to a polonaise. Vakula requests the tsaritsa's boots to a minuet, and it is granted because it is an unusual and amusing thing to ask. The Devil takes Vakula away as Russian and Cossack dances are happening.
Act IV opens in the town square on a bright Christmas morning. Solokha and Oxana think Vakula has drown himself and mourn him. Oxana runs off weeping when villagers invite her to the Christmas feast. Vakula returns with the boots, asks Chub to forgive him for the beating and asks for Oxana's hand in marriage. She enters, tells Vakula that she wants him, not the silly boots. Chub calls for the lutenists, the kobzari, and everyone celebrates.
Much of the humor in this opera is strained (eg. Vakula's weepiness), and Oxana's cruelty and vanity are not amusing and more than a bit misogynistic. On the other hand, there is some genuine humor and much compelling folksong and dance, with considerable atmospheric and fantastic imagery.