Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

L’equivoco stravagante in Pesaro

L’equivoco stravagante (The Bizarre Misunderstanding), the 18 year-old Gioachino Rossini's first opera buffa, is indeed bizarre. Its heroine Ernestina is obsessed by literature and philosophy and the grandiose language of opera seria.

BBC Prom 44: Rattle conjures a blistering Belshazzar’s Feast

This was a notable occasion for offering three colossal scores whose execution filled the Albert Hall’s stage with over 150 members of the London Symphony Orchestra and 300 singers drawn from the Barcelona-based Orfeó Català and Orfeó Català Youth Choir, along with the London Symphony Chorus.

Prom 45: Mississippi Goddam - A Homage to Nina Simone

Nina Simone was one of the towering figures of twentieth-century music. But she was much more than this; many of her songs came to be a clarion call for disenfranchised and discriminated against Americans. When black Americans felt they didn’t have a voice, Nina Simone gave them one.

Sincerity, sentimentality and sorrow from Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake at Snape Maltings

‘Abwärts rinnen die Ströme ins Meer.’ Down flow the rivers, down into the sea. These are the ‘sadly-resigned words in the consciousness of his declining years’ that, as reported by The Athenaeum in February 1866 upon the death of Friedrich Rückert, the poet had written ‘some time ago, in the album of a friend of ours, then visiting him at his rural retreat near Neuses’. Such melancholy foreboding - simultaneously sincere and sentimental - infused this recital at Snape Maltings by Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake.

Glimmerglass’ Showboat Sails to Glory

For the annual production of a classic American musical that has become part of Glimmerglass Festival’s mission, the company mounted a wholly winning version of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s immortal Showboat.

Proms at ... Cadogan Hall 5: Louise Alder and Gary Matthewman

“On the wings of song, I’ll bear you away …” So sings the poet-speaker in Mendelssohn’s 1835 setting of Heine’s ‘Auf Flügeln des Gesanges’. And, borne aloft we were during this lunchtime Prom by Louise Alder and Gary Matthewman which soared progressively higher as the performers took us on a journey through a spectrum of lieder from the first half of the nineteenth century.

Glowing Verdi at Glimmerglass

From the first haunting, glistening sound of the orchestral strings to the ponderous final strokes in the score that echoed the dying heartbeats of a doomed heroine, Glimmerglass Festival’s superior La Traviata was an indelible achievement.

Médée in Salzburg

Though Luigi Cherubini long outlived the carnage of the French Revolution his 1797 opéra comique [with spoken dialogue] Médée fell well within the “horror opera” genre that responded to the spirit of its time. These days however Médée is but an esoteric and extremely challenging late addition to the international repertory.

Queen: A Royal Jewel at Glimmerglass

Tchaikovsky’s grand opera The Queen of Spades might seem an unlikely fit for the multi-purpose room of the Pavilion on the Glimmerglass campus but that qualm would fail to reckon with the superior creative gifts of the production team at this prestigious festival.

Blue Diversifies Glimmerglass Fare

Glimmerglass Festival has commendably taken on a potent social theme in producing the World Premiere of composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Tazewell Thompson’s Blue.

Vibrant Versailles Dazzles In Upstate New York

From the shimmering first sounds and alluring opening visual effects of Glimmerglass Festival’s The Ghosts of Versailles, it was apparent that we were in for an evening of aural and theatrical splendors worthy of its namesake palace.

Gilda: “G for glorious”

For months we were threatened with a “feminist take” on Verdi’s boiling 1851 melodrama; the program essay was a classic mashup of contemporary psychobabble perfectly captured in its all-caps headline: DESTRUCTIVE PARENTS, TOXIC MASCULINITY, AND BAD DECISIONS.

Simon Boccanegra in Salzburg

It’s an inescapable reference. Among the myriad "Viva Genova!" tweets the Genovese populace shared celebrating its new doge, the pirate Simon Boccanegra, one stood out — “Make Genoa Great Again!” A hell of a mess ensued for years and years and the drinking water was poisonous as well.

Rigoletto at Macerata Opera Festival

In this era of operatic globalization, I don’t recall ever attending a summer opera festival where no one around me uttered a single word of spoken English all night. Yet I recently had this experience at the Macerata Opera Festival. This festival is not only a pure Italian experience, in the best sense, but one of the undiscovered gems of the European summer season.

BBC Prom 37: A transcendent L’enfance du Christ at the Albert Hall

Notwithstanding the cancellation of Dame Sarah Connolly and Sir Mark Elder, due to ill health, and an inconsiderate audience in moments of heightened emotion, this performance was an unequivocal joy, wonderfully paced and marked by first class accounts from four soloists and orchestral playing from the Hallé that was the last word in refinement.

Tannhäuser at Bayreuth

Stage director Tobias Kratzer sorely tempts destruction in his Bayreuth deconstruction of Wagner’s delicate Tannhäuser, though he was soundly thwarted at the third performance by conductor Christian Thielemann pinch hitting for Valery Gergiev.

Opera in the Quarry: Die Zauberflöte at St Margarethen near Eisenstadt, Austria

Oper im Steinbruch (Opera in the Quarry) presents opera in the 2000 quarry at St Margarethen near Eisenstadt in Austria. Opera has been performed there since the late 1990s, but there was no opera last year and this year is the first under the new artistic director Daniel Serafin, himself a former singer but with a degree in business administration and something of a minor Austrian celebrity as he has been on the country's equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing twice.

BBC Prom 39: Sea Pictures from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Sea Pictures: both the name of Elgar’s five-song cycle for contralto and orchestra, performed at this BBC Prom by Catriona Morison, winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World Main Prize in 2017, and a fitting title for this whole concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Elim Chan, which juxtaposed a first half of songs of the sea, fair and fraught, with, post-interval, compositions inspired by paintings.

BBC Prom 32: DiDonato spellbinds in Berlioz and the NYO of the USA magnificently scales Strauss

As much as the Proms strives to stand above the events of its time, that doesn’t mean the musicians, conductors or composers who perform there should necessarily do so.

Get Into Opera with this charming, rural L'elisir

Site-specific operas are commonplace these days, but at The Octagon Barn in Norwich, Genevieve Raghu, founder and Artistic Director of Into Opera, contrived to make a site persuasively opera-specific.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Karita Mattila as Lisa [Photo by Marty Sohl courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]
15 Mar 2011

The Queen of Spades, New York

Tchaikovsky’s Pikovaia Dama (The Queen of Spades) is the longest Mad Scene in opera. Ghermann is already half nuts when we meet him in the park in St. Petersburg on a windy day, and he gets crazier from scene to scene.

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky: The Queen of Spades

Lisa: Karita Mattila; The Countess: Dolora Zajick; Pauline/Daphnis: Tamara Mumford; Chloë: Dina Kuznetsova; Ghermann: Vladimir Galouzine; Yeletsky: Peter Mattei; Tomsky/Plutus: Alexey Markov. Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, conducted by Andris Nelsons. Performance of March 11.

Above: Karita Mattila as Lisa

All photos by Marty Sohl courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera

 

(There are seven in the opera; he’s in every one.) At first, he seems undecided whether he is crazed by poverty, by the contempt of his fellow officers or by his yearning for an unknown beauty, who turns out to be Lisa, a typical Russian girl just waiting for a brute to toss her around to fulfill his obsessions. (“I am your slave; I belong to you”—per Met TitlesTM.)

The confusion in Ghermann’s character is courtesy of the librettist, Modest Tchaikovsky—in Pushkin’s splendid short story, Ghermann doesn’t give a damn about the girl, only about money, and he seduces her only to learn the Countess’s magical secret of winning at cards—a secret that may exist only in his mind. But an opera is not a short story, and Modest knew his brother Pyotr’s penchant for romance and drama: As with Eugene Onegin, also taken from a Pushkin source, irony went out the window in order to let the score’s passion fill the room. Had the composer been truer to Pushkin, his operas would have been far less successful than they are—both artistically and with the public. And The Queen of Spades is a great favorite, if the tenor is mad enough, the soprano wild enough, the Countess sinister enough, the conductor in control of things.

QUEEN_Galouzine_as_Hermann_.gifVladimir Galouzine as Hermann

Elijah Moshinsky’s 1995 production was devised for the farewell (to the Met, to the stage, to life as a matter of fact, for she received her cancer diagnosis during the run) of Leonie Rysanek in the title role—she would hardly have consented to depart with anything less. The climax of her final performance was her ghostly appearance in Act III, not from the shadows of Ghermann’s room but bursting through the floor, backed by the flames of Hell, creeping in a singed red satin Ancien Regime ball gown (who wore red at Louis XV’s Versailles?) across the floor and actually into bed with the gibbering Ghermann of Gegam Gregorian to give him the secret of the three cards, while he seemed to lose what little remained of his sanity before our very eyes. This madcap staging would never suit any other lady, and subsequent Countesses have modified it considerably, though they still enter through the floor in uncompromising crimson—almost the only color in the costumes all night long. Elisabeth Soederstrøm (also bidding farewell to the Met) managed to make this work while just standing there by the bed, rigid, cold, unwillingly handing the cards to Plácido Domingo, who seemed shocked but hardly insane.

In the current revival, Dolora Zajick, a no-nonsense lady who shows no sign of needing a stick (she whacks Vladimir Galouzine over the head with it when he pulls a gun on her), seems neither supernatural nor doomed when she climbs through the floor. She might be a neighbor come to complain about the noise. She looks irritated by his bad behavior but hardly vindictive or supernatural. It is the keynote of her entire performance: down to earth, where the Countess should be uncanny even while she’s alive. This is a ghost story without a haunt. When Zajick appears at the very last, to the dying Ghermann, she possesses all the mystery of a concierge come to collect an unpaid dry cleaning bill.

(One of the most tiresome tricks of stage directors bereft of ideas is to show us the ghost, vision, dream, phantasm of a character who is imagining things. Bringing the Countess on stage in the last moments is a symptom of this, though it could be worse—Francesca Zambello brought back Lisa, too, at this moment. And then there’s the ghost Mary Zimmerman provided in Act I of Lucia to distract us from the soprano’s cavatina. Lucia can’t see this—only we do. Why? But you get the idea.)

Zajick is, in any case, too young or just too brash to play the Countess, a role that should be sung with presence, with gesture, with the wisp of faded voice and not the bellow of a woman who thinks she’s singing Amneris. That marks her contrast with Galouzine and Karita Mattila, who are rather old to play Ghermann and Lisa.

QUEEN_Zajick_and_Galouzine_.gifDolora Zajick as the Countess and Vladimir Galouzine as Hermann

Galouzine’s voice never did have youthful bloom, and his excursions into Italian lyric roles like Des Grieux have not been happy. Curiously, his best Italian role has been Canio in Pagliacci, another man under pressure, going mad before our eyes. This is his long suit. He never gets too crazy too soon, and his bulging eyes and jack o’ lantern grins deepen in precise parallel with the developments of the story. His voice is not a thing of great beauty, but he turns its shrillness to the service of a portrait of hysteria. His Ghermann is one of the highlights of the current Russian repertory; he will be remembered nostalgically when many a more honeyed tenor takes the part. And if, short and pudding-faced as he is, he hardly looks the romantic type, imaginative adolescent girls will throw themselves at anybody, won’t they?

I missed Mattila’s Lisa when this production was new, and I’ve been kicking myself about that for years. Her figure is still striking, her acting forcible, and her voice full of beautiful notes and qualities (as she revealed singing “Ah, Perfido!” and some Sibelius songs with the Philharmonic last winter), but the easy top that once spun over the lines of Strauss’s Arabella and Chrysothemis, and made her peasant girl Jenufa credible quite recently, has faded—due to age or due to singing Puccini, I’m not sure which. (Fortunately, Makropoulos Case, for which she is scheduled here next season, goes no higher than B-flat. But Turandot? Out of the question. Ballo in Maschera? I don’t think so.) There were glorious phrases in her singing the other night, ardent girlish cries of passion and anguish, but there were also embarrassing moments when she could not maintain a pitch or, as on the final outcry of surrender of her great Act I duet with Ghermann, could not get near it at all. She covered well—she’s a singing actress the match of Galouzine, a frequent collaborator. I missed the youthful ardency of her Jenufa or Katya, but I suspect those chancy top notes will improve as she gets used to singing the role again.

Peter Mattei is so tall and slim he looks quite odd as Prince Yeletsky, and his aria to Lisa lacked the sensual yearning Dmitri Hvorostovsky brought to this lovely number. He seemed uncomfortable and cold—which may be an acting choice. We could not quite believe Lisa would break an engagement with Hvorostovsky’s Yeletsky on any account; Mattei showed us just why she would. Alexey Markov, so impressive in his brief role in Boris Godunov this season and an excellent Prince Andrei in War and Peace, took the small roles of Count Tomsky (who starts the plot rolling with his tale of the Countess and the three cards) and Plutus in the divertissement, and provided the most luxurious and pleasurable singing of the evening. Tamara Mumford, the Pauline (Borodina’s breakout role), displayed a lovely alto but needs a Russian coach. Dina Kuznetsova made a charming debut as Chloë.

Under the able if unimaginative direction of Andris Nelsons, Tchaikovsky’s sprawling score seems longer than ever. If the Met truly wants it to run shorter (and the elimination of an intermission suggests it does), they might consider cutting the divertissement in Act II. The Met chorus do “Russian” dances in a manner that can only embarrass their friends and amuse the Russians in the audience. The many charms of this opera, the first Russian work ever presented by the Met (back in 1910) and also the first to be performed there in Russian (as recently as 1972), require a bit more focus on such details as Russian accents and dance steps to create the spectacular evening the composer desired. On the other hand, at only minutes short of midnight, the theater was still full of happy opera-goers.

John Yohalem

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):