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.
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Billy Budd, portrayed by handsome lyric tenor Liam Bonner, is a charismatic embodiment of innocence.
This was in almost every respect an excellent performance — which therefore exacerbates the problem lying at the heart, or whatever it is that lies in its place, of the work itself.
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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.