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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

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