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.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
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.