Queen of Spades (Pikovaya Dama)
Review by Diana, Snorrlax, FengShui, EuGene, GornPod
Libretto: Libretto by Modest Tchaikovsky and the composer, based on the short story by Alexander Pushkin
Venue: Metropolitan Opera House, New York City
Conductor: Andris Nelsons
Production: Elijah Moshinsk
Sets: Mark Thompson
Lighting: Paul Pyant
Stage Director: Peter McClintock
Choreographer: John Meehan
Cast: Lisa: Karita Mattila; the Countess: Dolora Zajick; Ghermann: Vladimir Galouzine; Prince Yeletsky: Peter Mattei
Rating: Super Star Destroyer intimidates and pleases!
Peter Tchaikovsky and his brother Modest have created librettos from the works of Alexandr Pushkin, who is considered the great father of Russian literature in that the people know his stories well. Even so, the Tchaikovsky brothers chose to re-write many aspects of the story, and with all due respect, this treatment is rather an improvement on Pushkin's original.
Quick summary of the opera version: Ghermann, an Engineer in the Russian army, has fallen in love with a woman he doesn't know, but regrets that she is of noble birth and he has no money. Prince Yeletsky is celebrating his good fortune in his engagement to the Countess's granddaughter, Lisa. Alas, Hermann recognizes his own beloved in Lisa, but also hears that the Countess possesses a secret to winning at cards. Determined to get the secret so he could have enough money to run away with Lisa, Ghermann soon replaced his obsession of Lisa with the obsession to learn the gambling secret, and goes mad ...
We'd seen this production as a Metropolitan Opera broadcast, and were frankly unimpressed with it. However, in the theater, it was rivetting. The lighting was incredibly dramatic and effective at reflecting Ghermann's state of mind, and old-fashioned sleight of hand served in lieu of ornate scene changes. We discovered that the broadcast used close-ups too often, which distorted the production; perhaps they were too enarmored of Placido Domingo singing the part of Ghermann, or Dmitry Hrovostovsky singing Prince Yeletsky?
The stage became a framed picture, with the action going on as if as a series of tableaus. The pithy tale could have been told in three scenes, but Tchaikovsky added a couple of musical numbers between them. The ballet was deliberately Mozartian in style as if he wanted to experiment. He included a children's chorus in Act 1; he had admired Bizet's Carmen children's chorus. In a sense, he was emulating and showing off that he could do it, it seems.
Russians perceive themselves as romantic and passionate, we learned. There is often much talk about "the Russian soul." Ghermann is said to have a German father, and thus he is very strict about his small inheritence and savings, frugally hoarding the money so that he could maintain a modest independance. Loss of that money or the prospect of getting more butts into his Russian half, creating conflicts within him that can only be salved by death ... and not just his own death.
Karita Mattila sang Lisa, a role she debuted when this production was new. It's said that her soprano is not as lilting or as carefree these days, but she is still very skilled, and as an actress, she conveys a young girl in love very convincingly. Peter Mattei, playing her noble fiance, used his smooth lyric baritone (described as "spun silk" but we think it's far better than that) singing the haunting, "Ya vas lyublyu" (I love you) to convey his disappointment that Lisa did not love him as he loves her. At over 6 feet tall and thin, he looked the part of the jilted, handsome prince. Okay, so some of us swooned. And any of us would watch any production featuring that voice!
Vladimir Galouzine was credited in reviews as the Russian who sang like a Russian. From where we sat, he wasn't the handsomest man, and he did convey a mild desperation from the very beginning, which grew in intensity. He became bolder as his obsessions grew, at the expense of his mind it was very believable. His tenor was not the most beautiful, but it was gritty and perfect for the role of the tortured man who pays the ultimate price for his obsessive cautions which become plain old unhealthy obsessions.
The Queen of Spades is the nickname for the old, imperious Countess, who has the secret of the cards to take to the grave ... but not, apparently, beyond. Dolora Zajick was luxury casting the role is normally one of the final ones for retiring sopranos. Zajick is nowhere near retirement and she's quite stout and hale, and her lustrous Verdi-esque voice is strong. Mostly, it was her acting skill convinced us that though she may have been a force of nature, she was also an old woman who could be frightened to death ... and then come back from the dead to get even.
The production made use of the deep Met Opera stage with forced perspectives and that picture frame that wrapped around the opening of into the auditorium. Lisa's room with the huge lace backdrop was simply a touch of very effective gorgeous girlishness. I heard many in the audience coo at it when the curtain came up. There was also a ballet in the middle of everything. And a long forced corridor with a gold door from whence came Catherine the Great, mother/empress of Russia. We found ourselves being drawn into the production, as forced and weird as it seemed at the start.
The scrim/curtain was also a brilliantly painted trompe l'oeille, which looked like a forest ... but transformed with clever lighting into a villa wall and garden ... then into a riverbed ... We saw it twice and found it fascinating to watch for the stage tricks and details the second time.
It's not what you really think of when you think of "opera," with its intimate feel and clever visuals throughout. I think it'd be a fine starter opera for those less experienced with opera in general, and Russian opera in particular. Having a cast this wonderful surely doesn't hurt, and in fact, we chose to come see this little bauble of an opera specifically for the cast. It's a strange opera for sure, but the Met's production makes it a jewel.
(Editor's note: I'm going to listen to a recording of Mattei singing "I love you," and wonder what Lisa was thinking to give him up over the crazed Ghermann ...!)
Production images from www.nytimes.com, www.operanews.com, and www.metopera.org
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