The Queen of Spades, P. Tchaikovsky
The Metropolitan Opera
11th March, 2011
In Tchaikovsy’s Pique Dame, familiar elements of Pushkin abound: the protagonist first being described by his fellow townsfolk as having dropped out of society for one reason or another, after which he reveals the reason for his strange behavior; the jolly friend of a very melancholy female protagonist, trying to cheer her up before abandoning her to a solo boudoir scene, where she, too (after much hesitation), expresses her emotional state; the Prince as passionless, but well-meaning cuckold; even the aging matriarch with a mysterious and glamorous past. However, the way it all fits together in Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame is so dramatically unstructured that we can only assume that the “story” is not the focus of the opera, but rather a screen onto which an atmosphere of decay and corruption is to be projected.
We learn little of Hermann at first, beyond the aforementioned description provided by his fellow officers, Sourin and Tchekalinsky. Their assessment is that he seems obsessed with gambling, but never plays himself. Hermann’s subsequent explanation is simply that he is consumed by a passionate love, but with so little other information, his declarations have an air of parody. We are no more enlightened by the entrance of the object of his affection, Lisa (Karita Mattila). All we are to know of her for the entire first act, is that she does not feel passion for her fiancé, Prince Yeletsky, but does decide to give in to the advances of Hermann, especially after he breaks into her bedroom in a passionate declaration of love.
This lack of characterization is in such stark contrast to the thematically similar Eugene Onegin, that it seems to deliberately hold us at a distance. We are left wondering, “Who are these people? Why do I care? Is any of it real?” David Hamilton’s program notes describe Pushkin’s short story as “detached” and “ironic”. He goes on to suggest, however that Tchaikovsky abandoned the irony, and created a true love story. I disagree with this assessment. Apparently Elijah Moshinsky did too.
Together with set and costume designer Mark Thompson, director Moshinsky presents a greyscale, neo-gothic dystopia, surrounded by a marble picture frame which seems to imply “Look, but don’t touch”. With a stark magnification of bustle, plume and hat-rim, Thompson’s turns a rapacious, fantastical gaze backwards into the Baroque.
Tchaikovsky’s score, too, plants itself in classical gesture, seldom allowing for romantic abandon. Andris Nelsons commits fully to this microcosm of string gestures, guiding each bar with a seemingly limitless palate of phrasal shapings. The Latvian conductor displays the passionate enthusiasm of a young musician and the infinite patience of an elderly Maestro in equal measures. He not only elicits the Met orchestra’s trademark elegance and transparency, but also the softest playing I have ever heard from them, inviting the audience in this overly large house to tune their senses just that little bit more keenly, and rewarding them with some of the performance’s most exquisite moments.
It is to be commended that the Met opened up the casting of this production to a range of vocal colors, rather than using an all-Russian cast simply because the piece is sung in Russian. Works such as these are well and truly part of the standard repertoire, and should be cast accordingly. It should also be noted that on this occasion (with the exception of Tamara Mumford as Pauline) the best singing came from the Russians.
As Hermann, Vladimir Galouzine’s intensity carried him relentlessly forwards, shaking his voice free of some early constriction by the end of Act 1, and continuing to blossom in fullness until his final moments. It is never clear whether his love of Lisa is genuine, or simply another passing addict’s obsession. Galouzine’s performance allows for ambiguity, whilst seeming clear of purpose from one moment to the next.
Much as Karita Mattila’s vocal color should be suited to this repertoire, it was shockingly evident in this performance, as in many of late, that her instrument has suffered damage, and is no longer functional. It is, sadly, not a case of a bad note or two. Ms Mattila was unable to produce a healthy sound in any register; unable to “float” the voice without excessive air escaping, or raise the volume without eliciting a painful grating sound in her throat. There is a level of stardom beyond which critics are either reticent, or their judgment is colored by fond memories of previous performances when it comes to giving an accurate description of an artist’s performance. Whilst I empathize both with Mattila and her fan base, and am loathe to give negative testimony of such a respected artist, I feel that her voice as it stands no longer belongs on the Met stage.
Perhaps the most delicious voice on the stage belonged to Alexey Markov, in the relatively small role of Count Tomsky. Markov’s voice resonates immediately at every pitch in the role’s vast range. His first act aria, explaining the back-story of the mysterious Countess, was nuanced and gripping, showcasing this artist’s exceptional use of language as well as his pyrotechnic top register.
Peter Mattei seemed ill at ease with the extended legato lines of Prince Yeletsky. His intonation suffered in a somewhat effortful attempt to fit his voice - more at home with the agility of Mozartean style - into this expansive phrasing. Dramatically, however, his Prince was restrained, dignified, and sympathetic.
Having waddled several times through the scene, buried in increasingly outrageous costumes, Dolora Zajick as the Countess finally gets her moment late in Act 2. Comparatively stripped down and wigless, she delivers a moving reminiscence of her youth. Her reappearance as a ghost in later scenes is truly inventive and surprisingly scary.
Tamara Mumford’s voice is caressing, elegant, and seems to grow alarmingly in richness and depth every time I hear it. To say that her voice simply suits the repertoire would not be paying credit to what I believe is more a case of this singer’s immensely intelligent artistry. Pianist Lydia Brown accompanied Mumford’s aria with great sensitivity and Rachmaninovian pathos.
Pique Dame may seem twee at first, but somewhere in the 3rd hour, it steers off course, and particularly in this production, some of the most interesting theatre is to be found in the tail end. It is well worth the wait.
Bottom line: Just a normal opera... or is it?
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Conductor - Andris Nelsons
Production - Elijah Moshinsky
Set & Costume Designer - Mark Thompson
Lighting Designer - Paul Pyant
Stage Director - Peter McClintock
Choreographer - John Meehan
(in order of appearance)
Tchekalinsky - Adam Klein
Sourin - Paul Plishka
Count Tomsky/ Plutis - Alexey Markov
Hermann - Vladimir Galouzine
Prince Yeletsky - Peter Mattei
Lisa - Karita Mattila
The Countess - Dolora Zajick
Pauline/Daphnis - Tamara Mumford
Governess - Kathryn Day
Masha, Lisa’s maid - Danielle Pastin
Master of Ceremonies - Bernard Fitch
Chloe - Dina Kuznetsova
Catherine the Great - Sheila Ricci
Tchaplitsky - Mark Schowalter
Naroumov - Jeremy Galyon
Piano solo - Lydia Brown