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Posts Tagged ‘Tchaikovsky’s Pikovaya Dama’

Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades was the first opera I have ever seen. Those were the days I did not care much for vocal music, but it must have worked it charm for here I am. Curiously I had forgotten about that until I got myself a ticket for today’s performance at the Metropolitan Opera. Until this afternoon, I had never seen it again – and the truth is that I can’t say I really like it. I find it a bit all over the place with its multitude of secondary characters who get to sing an aria, some of them longer than Basilio’s In quegli anni in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, and its cute atmospheric scenes (not to mention the intermezzo) that only let the steam of dramatic tension off. And yet listening to Rostropovich’s recording to renew my acquaintance with this work there was this moment during Lisa and Hermann’s first duet that did the trick for me. Lisa does not resist her emotions and cannot help crying. When Hermann sees that a woman he thought to be entirely unaware of his existence returns his feelings, he is so overwhelmed that he cannot even form a sentence. He says “My beauty… my goddess… angel”. Unlike the character in Pushkin’s short story, Tchaikovsky’s Hermann longed not for the money but for the girl. As the girl happened to be rich, the money was something he needed to get to her, but then the prodigy happened: he managed to won her heart in spite of his lack of wealth. She had fallen for his tormented eyes. Therefore, the torment had to go on – it was more than the bond between them, it was his very essence. He would perish without it – and so he does. And this kind of feeling, this is exactly what Tchaikovsky knew how to put into music.

If conductor Vasily Petrenko did not offer his audience that, one must take in account the forces available to him this afternoon. From the first bars, I realized that this performance would be very different from what one hears in Rostropovich’s Paris recording, where every chord is driven by some sort of force. From bar one and even through the children chorus and the ball scene, one hears that this is not going to end well. And Rostropovich did that with a subpar orchestra and a colorful cast. But that was a studio recording. Mr. Petrenko, on the other hand, is debuting at the Met and has a show to carry on. And he does it with a soprano new to the role, a tenor light for the part, a chorus not entirely at ease and an orchestra with limited availability for rehearsals. And in spite of all that, he offered a polished account of the score, the house orchestra particularly warm and smooth in sound, all singers taken care of and in the hands of a conductor sensitive to their needs, and one who knows the music from inside out, as the audience could hear in the absolute clarity and structural coherence of this afternoon’s music making. But the white heat, the paroxysm, the Angst, one would have to look elsewhere for all that.

Much has been written about Lise Davidsen’s first Lisa. She had been accused of not being Nilsson or Flagstad and now she is blamed for not being Vishnevskaya nor Milashkina. The problem with Ms. Davidsen is simple: music lovers have been waiting  so long for someone like her to show up on operatic stages that now that she is here it has been difficult for everyone to accept that her job is not fulfilling the fantasies of every member in the audience simultaneously, but rather serving music and text with her own voice and imagination. And I am happy to see she has been true to herself and is building her own career in her very own terms. Yes, Ms. Davidsen’s Lisa lacks the vibrancy and intensity of a Vishnevskaya or the plangency and roundness of tone of a Milashkina. To say the truth, she does not sound at all as a Russian soprano. Her Lisa turns around restraint – her sizable soprano kept in strict control throughout the opera. Both her big arias are sung with Schubertian discipline, her high notes effortlessly hit without showiness. It is almost a performance about what you don’t hear: the luxuriant mezzo-ish depth in the low register and the Valkyrian power in its top notes are at an arm’s reach, but kept under leash, exactly as the character in the opera, the girl who was supposed to go straight from the strict supervision of her grandmother to the suffocating affection of a husband she knows very little about until she finally succumbs to the vortex of passion and obsession of a foreigner in a world where she feels foreign too, although she was born in it. Yes, this is not what one usually hears in the role – and maybe the way it has always been done is ultimately more efficient – but in the context of this performance, Lise Davidsen’s subtle glow worked wonders. In terms of acting, she showed the same economy of means and would have been far more efficient if the Spielleitung had not insisted in some sort of fidgety blocking with no added insight. Her best scene was therefore the ball, where she moved with aristocratic poise, but oozed anxiety in every gesture.

Yusif Eyvazov’s Hermann is a whole different story. He displayed acquaintance with the style, crispness of textual delivery and even more than that – awareness not only of the dramatic situations, but also of the words in the libretto. In the onstage discussion after the performance, he joked about how his wife, Anna Netrebko, told him that his problem in this opera wouldn’t be what he had to sing, but what he had to act. Mr. Eyvazov is hardly a force of nature in terms of acting, it is true, but he knows what he can do and, within his possibilities, offered a vulnerable take on the role that makes sense to the text, but not necessarily to the music. When one listens to Vladimir Atlantov sing this part, there is not much room for subtlety, but the weight of a voice like that and the intensity of every utterance sounds simply right. Mr. Eyvazov is no dramatic tenor. He copes alright with the heroic writing, but the voice lacks volume and slancio to fully pierce through thick orchestration and, at the same time, is short on roundness of tone and fluidity for him to be called a “lyric tenor”. Although he has no problem with high notes, the voice lacks squillo. One feels something is missing, high overtones I would say.

Both Igor Golovatenko’s Yeletsky and Alexey Markov’s Tomsky benefited from firm, velvety voices, but Elena Maximova’s Pauline could have done without the harshness in her high register. Larissa Diadkova has stage presence and her low register is still imposing and fruity. Her approach to the Countess, however, lacked mystery. Normally, this is a character that seems to be made of a different substance from the other people on stage, but here she seemed very much like everyone else. It was also a good surprise to find Paul Groves as a firm-toned Tchekalinsky and Jill Grove relishing the competiton for darkness of tone with Russian altos in her short appearance as the governess. I cannot say how proficient the cast is in the language of Pushkin, though.

I won’t write much about Elijah Moshinski’s production. I would say that a traditional staging oughts to offer far more in terms of characterization than the pointless running to and fro seen here, but 1) one could say that this is not truly traditional, considering the stylized sets and costumes, but, anyway, it is lackadaisical and vacuous to a fault; 2) it was first seen at the Met in 1995 and it is difficult now to say what the director really accomplished back then.

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