1999, Paris Opera Bastille: Queen of Spades

Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades)

Composer : Pyotr Tchaikovsky
Librettist : Modest Tchaikovsky after Pushkin’s story
Venue and Dates :  Opéra Bastille in Paris
11, 14, 18, 22, 25, 28 October, 1, 3, 7 November 1999
Conductor : Vladimir Jurowski
Director : Lev Dodin
Performers :

Gherman : Vladimir Galouzine
[Alexei Steblianko – see notes]
Lisa : Karita Mattila
Polina : Elena Zaremba
Tomsky : Vassili Gerello
Yeletsky : Simon Keenlyside
Countess : Helga Dernesch
Czekalinsky : Vsavolod Grlypov
Ssurin : Wojtek Smilek
Mascha : Elena Batukova
Czaplitzky : Grzegorz Staskiewicz
Namurov : Till Fechner
Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra National de Paris

Notes : From the opernglas review quoted below it becomes clear that Alexei Steblianko sang Gherman at least for the first night of this production as Galouzine apparently
had to cancel.

Soundbites

Opera News, February 2000 (Stephen J. Mudge)

… No such production pleasures were to be had on October 22 at Opéra National’s The Queen of Spades, shared with Amsterdam and Florence. Director Lev Dodin, intent on returning the work to Pushkin’s original story, mercilessly shoehorned the opera into his revisionist plan. It all had little to do with Tchaikovsky’s opera, though the production, which got a hostile audience reception, was favorably reviewed by some of the media.

During the overture, Dodin used a flashback device to allow the audience to see Gherman languishing in a depressingly underfurnished mental institution. This is par for a familiar directorial course that has included Violetta’s dying in the prelude of La Traviata and Don José’s looking back at his life from a prison cell in Carmen. It quickly became apparent that we were not to leave the asylum, with the interns acting out scenes from the opera, with much shuffling and rocking from the ladies of the chorus. Even accepting the concept, this was a clichéd, unsympathetic portrayal of mental disorder, and too often the text and music were fatally at odds with the staging. The scene with the Countess brought a more straightforward approach, and the concentration of Tchaikovsky’s music brought the second half to a suitably dramatic conclusion, in spite of the culminative card game being played out on the solitary metal bed of the hospital, the sort of heavy symbolism that had characterized the evening.

A shame, as musically this was a fine performance, conducted with burning intensity by the young Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski.

In the central role of Gherman, Vladimir Galouzine was superb, with blazingly powerful high notes and an impressive engagement in his shambling madness. Karita Mattila has become a treasured artist, and her nervously wrecked Lisa was impressive, but the work taxes her essentially lyric instrument to its limits and, in the role’s final stretches, somewhat beyond. The Countess is a gift of a role for the powerful presence of Wagnerian Helga Dernesch, convincingly retaining some of the beauty of her youth and singing the little Grétry romance with hauntingly beautiful tone. She returned in Gherman’s dreams as a particularly evil-looking psychiatric nurse. Both Elena Zaremba and Simon Keenlyside made much of their respective roles as Pauline and Yeletsky, she singing with dark Russian tones reminiscent of Irina Arkhipova, he providing an intelligently phrased, easily produced aria.

Neither Gherman nor Lisa committed suicide. He lived on in his Stalinist asylum, while Lisa appeared to hide under a table. It seems that Russian directors, freed from the constraints of their conservative traditions, may be discovering the 1960s avant-garde. On this occasion, the three-card trick failed.

Opernglas, December 1999 (C. Merlin)

Yeletski’s air by Simon Keenlyside was elegantly phrased. His subtle high baritone actually sounded like a tenor in comparison with Steblianko. Maybe this could be our new Pelléas…..

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