27 Dec 2007
“Your Queen is trumped”: Queen of Spades by the Kirov
Watching The Queen of Spades staged by a Russian company is often an unforgettable experience.
It is twenty-three years since Rossini’s opera of cultural oppression, inspiring heroism and tender pathos was last seen on the Covent Garden stage, but this eagerly awaited new production of Guillaume Tell by Italian director Damiano Micheletto will be remembered more for the audience outrage and vociferous mid-performance booing that it provoked — the most persistent and strident that I have heard in this house — than for its dramatic, visual or musical impact.
With its outrageous staging demands, you sometimes wonder why opera companies want to produce Verdi’s Aida. But the piece is about far more than pharaohs, pyramids and camels.
Given the enduring resonance and impact of the magnificent visual aesthetic of Visconti’s 1971 film of Thomas Mann’s novella, opera directors might be forgiven for concluding that Britten’s Death in Venice does not warrant experimentation with period and design, and for playing safe with Edwardian elegance, sweeping Venetian vistas and stylised seascapes.
If La Rondine (The Swallow) is a less-admired work than rest of the mature Puccini canon, you wouldn’t have known it by the lavish production now lovingly staged by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
Few companies have championed new or neglected works quite as fervently and consistently as the industrious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
For Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, “everything old is new again.”
Why would an American opera company devote its resources to the premiere of an opera by an Italian composer? Furthermore a parochially Italian story?
Berlioz’ Les Troyens is in two massive parts — La prise de Troy and Troyens à Carthage.
On Saturday evening June 13, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Dog Days, a new opera with music by David T. Little and a text by Royce Vavrek. In the opera adopted from a story of the same name by Judy Budnitz, thirteen-year-old Lisa tells of her family’s mental and physical disintegration resulting from the ravages of a horrendous war.
Audiences at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan first saw Madama Butterfly on February 17, 1904. It was not the success it is these days, and Puccini revised it before its scheduled performances in Brescia.
Opera Philadelphia is a very well-managed opera company with a great vision. Every year it presents a number of well-known “warhorse” operas, usually in the venerable Academy of Music, and a few more adventurous productions, usually in a chamber opera format suited to the smaller Pearlman Theater.
Written in 1783, Giovanni Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia reigned for three decades as one of Europe’s most popular operas, before being overshadowed forever by Rossini’s classic work.
The Princeton Festival has established a reputation for high-quality summer opera. In recent years works by Handel, Britten, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Wagner and Gershwin have been performed at Matthews Theater on Princeton University campus: a 1100-seat auditorium with good sight-lines though a somewhat dry and uneven acoustic.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail was Mozart’s ﬁrst great public success in Vienna, and it became the composer’s most oft performed opera during his lifetime.
The Ensemble for the Romantic Century offered a thoughtful and well-curated evening in their production of The Sorrows of Young Werther, which is part theatrical performance and part art song concert.
This was an adventurous double bill of two ‘quasi-operas’ by Hans Werner Henze, performed by young singers who are studying on the postgraduate Opera Course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
High brick walls, a cavernous space, entered via a narrow passage just off a London thoroughfare: Village Underground in Shoreditch is probably not that far removed from the venue in which Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was first performed — whether that was Josiah Priest’s girl’s school in Chelsea or the court of Charles II or James II.
Hats off to Garsington for championing once again some criminally neglected Strauss. I overheard someone there opine, ‘Of course, you can understand why it isn’t done very often.’
Mozart and Da Ponte’s Cosi fan tutte provides little in the way of background or back story for the plot, thus allowing directors to set the piece in a variety settings.
Based on a play, Chrysomania (The Passion for Money), by the Russian playwright Prince Alexander Shokhovskoy, Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades is, in the words of one literary critic, ‘a sardonic commentary on the human condition’.
Watching The Queen of Spades staged by a Russian company is often an unforgettable experience.
This is particularly true of the first-rate troupe of the Kirov Opera that still holds its regular St Petersburg season in the very building where Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece premiered in late December, 117 years ago. That said, the closing performance of The Queen of Spades that the Kirov offered this year at the Kennedy Center is an experience I would much rather forget. While not horrible, it was inconsistent, careless, even sloppy – a step down from the opening night of Otello the week before, and a leap down from what this company is capable of doing with this most St Petersburg-esque of all operas.
As expected, Vladimir Galouzine as Gherman easily out-sang the rest of the cast. Although he did opt for the lower, less “insane” key of A-major for the gambling house brindisi, his strong, powerful heldentenor high register garnered well-deserved applause. So did his acting, particularly in Act 3 in which Gherman’s fragile psyche is gradually unraveling in front of our eyes. I would specifically point to an often overlooked duet of Gherman and besotted Liza at the Winter Canal, here made compelling in its stark contrast of distraction and devotion. However, there were several moments when the singer was taking liberties (or was it memory lapses?) with his part. In the opening arioso, the perfect high note arguably made up for the missing verb in the text; not so in the finale, when dying Gherman simply refused to declare how much he loved his “angel” and left maestro Gergiev holding the bag (i.e., the score) for a few incomprehensible (without the vocal line, that is) measures before being saved at last by the final chorus.
Mlada Khudoley’s Liza was not particularly impressive in the opening act: indeed, in Scene 2 she was overshadowed not only by her girlfriend Pauline, performed by Zlata Bulycheva, but even by her maid (Maria Matveeva). Still, to her credit, Ms Khudoley improved steadily throughout Act 2, and did wonderfully in her famous Act 3 Winter Canal aria – at least in the lyrical opening section. No singer, no matter how fabulous, can ever save the unfortunate F#-minor cabaletta that follows (the reprise of it as a duet is more unfortunate still, particularly in the poetry department).
Lyubov Sokolova, whom I liked as Emilia in Otello, acquitted herself admirably as The Countess, with a rich low register and a proud arrogance of manner. I do regret not having had an opportunity to hear the illustrious Irina Bogacheva: she was showcased in this, her classic role on the earlier nights, with Sokolova as the Governess (Olga Savova, Sokolova’s replacement in that cute cameo role on December 14th, was a regrettable choice).
Outside the fateful triangle of Gherman, Liza, and the “Old Hag,” Alexander Gergalov’s Yeletsky shone in his Act 2 aria but was nondescript elsewhere. I liked the gamblers – Sergei Semishkur’s Chekalinsky, Fedor Kuznetsov’s Narumov, Sergei Skorokhodov’s Chaplitsky, and particularly Yuri Vorobiev’s jolly and sonorous Surin. Evgenii Nikitin was, overall, a good Tomsky, although I preferred his highs to his lows, and his gambling house song to his ballad. I was prejudiced, of course: no one can ever quite recover from hearing Sergei Leiferkus in this role (see the Kirov’s recent Queen of Spades DVD for details).
Set designer Alexander Orlov offered us a minimalist setting. The single backdrop of the narrowed stage showed a granite staircase rising toward a fragment of the Neva river embankment. The details marked the spot as the tip of the Vasilievsky Island, across the river from the original Winter Canal of Scene 6, and a place that some St Petersburg dwellers call “the end of the world” – a historically incorrect but strangely appropriate setting for this symbolist tragedy. The symbolically disinclined Petersburg natives in the audience – and there were many – were meanwhile puzzled by the fact that the staircase led in the wrong direction, so technically the characters were literally “walking on water.” But most of the historical and geographical details that typically create the pageantry of The Queen of Spades were either skewed or eliminated. The absence of poor Liza’s pianoforte, for example, turned the “real” period tunes of the Scene 2 duet and Pauline’s romance into an unreal, theatrical pretend sung into the orchestra pit. When the pageantry did appear, it was glaringly self-aware: the figure of the young Countess haunting each scene dressed in her rococo splendor; three masked figures in black, revealed in Act 3 to be the personifications of the three cards; the Act 2 ball turned into a masquerade...
The theatricality (or perhaps the unreality) of the drama was highlighted by several tall curtains – some black, others white – that were used to separate scenes, characters, and events throughout the opera. A black curtain, specifically, enlivened the section of the ballroom scene in which masked Surin and Chekalinsky are haunting the increasingly unstable Gherman with a fragment of the three card ballad, while literally hiding behind it. It was also used to great effect in the last act, making its three scenes, in effect, run continuously, and thus increasing the tension leading towards the catastrophic dénouement. From the point of view of the overall direction and design, the curtain idea went beyond stage business, of course: it symbolically represented the opera’s crushing contrasts of light and dark, day and night, life and death, real and surreal. Yet here, as at many points in this performance, a good idea was betrayed by its slipshod execution: the fabric was too light, which made the black look gray, and both black and white look cheap; it divided into unattractive sections, each flapping about seemingly with a life of its own, and all more Mary Poppins than Countess ***.
The otherworldly green-colored (and much better draped) Act 2 pastoral did provide a nice contrast to all the black and white: a lively stylization of French rococo court entertainment, it sported a traditional separation of singers and their dancing doubles. The scene would have worked even better if the number of dancers had been curtailed: the endless leaf-decorated fauns made the stage a little over-crowded. The same can be said for the actual crowd scenes, particularly the opening Summer Garden party: the choristers in their elaborate costumes (costume designer Irina Cheredniakova) kept getting in each other’s way; the striking hats alone required two extra feet of space around each wearer.
Overall, despite some controversial directing and designing choices, there were many attractive features in the Kirov production of The Queen of Spades. Alas, the same cannot be said for the performance – at least not on the night in question. This was probably the sloppiest work I have ever witnessed from the Kirov, inexcusable in a world-class opera company that has clearly demonstrated on so many occasions (and to me, as recently as five days earlier) that it can do better. In Act 1, the whole ensemble seemed to have forgotten how to count, sliding constantly out of sync with the orchestra and with each other. Among many ill-fated consequences, this problem doomed the chilly, barely accompanied quintet in the opening scene – the moment that Russian musicologist Boris Asafiev once called “the nerve center” of the opera that first and irrevocably ties together Gherman, Liza, and The Countess. Bad timing also ruined the little duet of Gherman and Yeletsky in the same scene: as the characters are expressing directly opposing sentiments in almost the same words but contrasting rhythmic profiles, its very incongruence, its “anti-duet-ness,” depends on perfect, ironclad synchronicity for its effect. Thankfully, things improved somewhat as the opera progressed: still shaky in Act 2, the timing was acceptable (yet still not perfect) in Act 3. It must be added that this criticism applies to the soloists but not to the chorus, as steady and in sync as it has ever been. The same cannot be said for the orchestra, however: it did well, but did not impress me as much as it usually does. The bass clarinet solo in Act 2 Scene 2 and the horn chords that punctuated the Countess’s death scene were two of many examples of imprecision ruining Tchaikovsky’s bone-chilling effects.
So, if you missed the Kirov’s Queen of Spades this season, do not despair. Instead, get yourself their (granted, much more traditional – pianoforte and all) DVD for Christmas and witness Russia’s greatest opera company do justice to one of Russia’s greatest masterworks.