26 May 2009

An Elegant Pique Dame in Turin

“Pique Dame” (“Pivokaja Dama” or “The Queen of Spades”) is one of Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky most difficult, and most expensive, operas to produce.

The work’s forces include 14 soloists, a chorus of some 100 men and women, a children chorus of 24 and a “theatre-within-the-theatre” pastoral pantomime with the arrival of Empress Katherine the Great and her retinue. Its three acts entail seven different scenes: from St. Petersburg’s gardens in the spring to the great hall of a palace, to private apartments, to the banks of the Neva, to officers’ quarters, and finally, to the casino. Turin had had only one fully staged series of seven performances (but in Italian and with substantial cuts) way back in 1963. There had been concert versions (in Russian) in the RAI Auditorium (the most recent in 1990). The Teatro Regio is a well-managed institution; it has scheduled a glittering new production for the current season with the intent to rent it to other Theaters; its normal partners are Lyon’ s and Los Angeles’ opera houses. A star of the Russian opera theaters, Dmitri Cherniakov, entrusted the stage direction and stage set. Another star (Misha Didyk) was contracted for the taxing role of the protagonist, Herman. Finances compelled cuts of the expected lavish production.

Meanwhile, both Cherniakov and Didyk disappeared or, rather, vanished away. The Regio Musical’s strong-willed director, Gianandrea Noseda, conducted. Denis Krief was called upon to provide a “low cost, but elegant” production that would set a standard for low budget productions that could nevertheless be leased to other theaters. The Teatro Regio gave Krief three days to develop a new concept for this “Pique Dame” staging.

The resulting production consisted of a single set with the stage floor as a huge gambling table where, with a few simple props, the gardens, the palaces, the apartments, the barracks, the casinos take shape. In “Pique Dame”, Tchaikovsky delved into his own personal problems (foremost his sexual orientation) that three years later led him to commit suicide (the most widely accepted version of his death). He used the 18th Century setting as a device that allowed the examination of himself and of contemporary Russian aristocratic and bourgeois society (similar to Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier”). In this context, the setting was moved forward to the end of the 19th Century.


Black and white is de rigueur — a spectral ghost society now in decay. Within this context, the Countess is not a handicapped old woman, but an aging, yet still attractive, “grande dame”. Hermann is not in love with Liza — she is a mere tool to enter the Countess’ bedroom and steal the secret of the winning three card combination — but is struggling with his own obsessions. Prince Eleckij, on the other hand, is a real man suffering from Liza’s betrayal. The others (Polina, Count Tomskij, Celakinskij, Surin, Narunov) represent Russia in decay. The gambling casino resembles a cemetery.

The Regio audience saluted the staging (and the rest of the performance) with standing ovations. Some reviewers appreciated the musical part but regretted the lack of cardboard 18th Century palaces and wigs.


The young and attractive Russian tenor, Maksim Aksënov, rescued what threatened to become a doomed production. A superb actor, Aksënov has a crystal- clear timbre. He easily reaches high “Cs” and caresses tender “legatos”. He has a great career in front of him; but he has work to do on the central tonalities and on the “mezza-voce”.

There were two vocal and acting giants with him. Svetla Vassileva is more at ease with Tchaikovsky than with the Verdi repertoire in which she is normally cast in Italian opera houses. Anja Silja, with a career of more than 55 years, remains impressive.

Gianandrea Noseda has a dry way of conducting this score- different from Gergeev’s dramatic nearly violent approach, from Tchakarov’s morbid treatment and from Jurosvkij’s emphasis on anticipations of the 20th Century. The orchestra responds well, especially the strings and the woods. The double chorus has some difficulties with Russian pronunciation.

Altogether, this production deserves to be seen elsewhere in Europe and, perhaps, in the USA.

Giuseppe Pennisi