Larissa Diadkova and Her God-given Voice (The Queen of Spades)

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the Russian mezzo-soprano who is appearing as The Countess in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades for Royal Opera…

Zelenodolsk is a city in central Russia but it has to yield pride of place to another, larger city not far away: Kazan. This is particularly so in matters musical and indeed it was at Kazan that the great bass Chaliapin first made his mark. Bearing this in mind I ask Larissa Diadkova if during her childhood in Zelenodolsk hearing music meant travelling to Kazan – unless, of course, it came her way through recordings or on the radio. Her response to my question is a confession, albeit one offered laughingly: “I always used to turn the radio off when classical music came on!”

But if this famed singer was slow to recognise where her career would lie she at once recognised that she had something that marked her out from others. “It just happened that God gave me this gift, this voice. In my early days I took part in concerts which at that time were a feature in Russia: they were shows for those who had some talent and the songs you performed there were Soviet songs, often very good songs but not classical certainly. However, at one of those concerts a lady heard me and she turned out to be a teacher in a music school. She was very complimentary and said that my voice was very beautiful and had a lot of colour in it, but that I definitely needed to study. So I put that into practice when I went on to the next level of education and that did mean going to Kazan.”

In interviews Larissa prefers for the most part to speak in Russian (a chance, incidentally, to note how she makes the language sound wonderfully colourful through her intonations even when merely talking). But even with an interpreter involved one gets a vivid impression of Larissa’s character and personality, as when she describes her feelings on being drawn unexpectedly into the world of classical music as a youngster. “It was hard but at the same time interesting: something new that I could show myself in. It’s a nice feeling for a girl of that age to think that maybe at some point in the future she can go on the stage and be an actress or even – and you might think it the worst case scenario – as a singer! But being in Kazan I was truly lucky, and it was there that as a student I went to the opera for the first time: it was Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.”

The next step came when she realised that she needed to take advantage of even better opportunities that existed elsewhere. “Irina Bogachova was a very famous singer in Russia then and she became my inspiration. I felt that if possible I must study with the same teacher. So that brought me to St Petersburg and to exams to study at the Conservatory there. Bogachova’s teacher was present and noticed me and since in those days a student could request a particular teacher I indicated my preference for her. So we chose each other and later we kept in touch because a very close rapport developed between us. Her name was Iraida Levando and sadly she passed away a year and a half ago, but I shall always be very grateful to her.”

Given the fact that classical music did not enter her life earlier, I wondered how certain she had felt about this change of direction when starting out at the Conservatory. Did she have distinct hopes, as so many of its singing students did, that one day she would cross the road and enter the Mariinsky Theatre, the home of the Kirov Opera Company, that happened to be opposite? Her reply is firm: “We have a saying in Russia that a private who doesn’t dream of becoming a general is not a good soldier. So, yes, I had that dream, but it was a brave dream because I was not certain if my voice would enable me to realise it.” But it did indeed happen and consequently Larissa now looks back on those times at the Conservatory and then at the Kirov as a great opportunity. “There were so many talented musicians there, not least those in the orchestra. And Temirkanov was there too – he has amazing hands and he was the first conductor I felt very warm towards. Later I would work a lot with Gergiev, which was a great privilege. I am also very pleased to have met and worked with Rostropovich: in particular there was Khovanshchina, and Songs and Dances of Death with the Chicago Symphony. I really admire him.”

Hardly surprisingly, Russian music dominated during this period but Larissa’s subsequent career has seen her embracing Verdi and Wagner. “Even then I hoped that one day I would sing foreign repertoire, especially Italian works because they suit my voice due to its colour.” She goes on to recall her first appearance in such a work, Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera in Florence, which, as it happens, was conducted by Semyon Bychkov who is also the conductor for her present Royal Opera enterprise. “He gave me such confidence and, strangely enough, despite knowing that some singers got booed after their arias, I walked out on that stage in the role of Ulrica without any feeling of stage fright. When they congratulated me on the reception I got, I didn’t really understand what they were talking about because it had just seemed so natural and normal.”

It had struck me as likely that Larissa Diadkova would view Tchaikovsky’s music as being so expressive of the Russian soul that singers from other countries might be at a disadvantage as against native artists who would instinctively respond to that element. It was a thought that seemed to fit with the fact that several Russian performers are involved in this Covent Garden revival of Francesca Zambello’s production of The Queen of Spades (Pique Dame). However, Larissa takes a different line. “Tchaikovsky’s scores are like those of Wagner: if you follow everything to the letter as it is written out for you then belonging to a different culture does not matter because even the nuances are there in the score. When Tarkovsky staged Boris Godunov in St Petersburg and Robert Lloyd came to sing the title role we admired so greatly how he felt the music – even if his pronunciation was not perfect it didn’t matter because the depth of his understanding was so transparent.”

In talking about The Queen of Spades itself, Larissa notes the passion in its composition and finds its personal drama and tragedy stronger than that in the earlier Pushkin adaptation Eugene Onegin which had been meant for students. She finds it more modern in character too, a work of psychological depth. “There’s often a tragic sense you can recognise in the music that marks it out as Tchaikovsky’s and the orchestration is quite close to that of his Fifth and ‘Pathétique’ Symphonies, very sorrowful and with painful intonations. Interestingly Tchaikovksy added weight to the tragedy by making the main female figure, Liza, die, whereas in Pushkin she married and lived happily ever after. But it’s very sensual music as well.”

Playing the short but crucial and indeed memorable role of the Countess clearly appeals to Larissa. While the singing highlight is found in her aria solo in Act Two, the subsequent death scene, albeit supported by the music, is non-vocal and calls strongly on acting skills (“It’s just a test of your professionalism really – you just have to act and pretend to be Sarah Bernhardt!”). What she does find a bit scary is something else entirely, as she explains. “In Russia the common practice is to give the part to younger artists provided they are emotionally mature, but in the West it’s often perceived as a role you take at the end of your career.” As she says this she could be thinking of our own Edith Coates who was singing the role to great acclaim in her sixties. “That’s why I was a bit reluctant to sign this contract for Covent Garden in case it night be thought of as my last role!”

In actuality, of course, no one is likely to think such thoughts when her career as an international singer is such a bright one. Indeed, to be readily available for the roles she is asked to sing she has for some years had her main home in Luxembourg as a geographically central point. “I consider myself very lucky to have a husband like Alexander Kogan. We have a daughter, now in her late teens, and I am immensely grateful to Alexander for having made himself available to be with her when I couldn’t be because it’s so important for a child to have a parent close at all times when growing up. That he was willing to give up his own singing to do this is something I appreciate so much, and, although he’s no longer a singer, lots of people in the business regard him as a great friend and think very highly of him.”

The interview draws to a close and I have not had the chance to mention her compatriot playing the character who is the key figure in The Queen of Spades. She notices this and adds a final comment of her own accord: “I should have mentioned Vladimir Galouzine. I think he is absolutely and unquestionably the best Herman around.”

  • The opening night of The Queen of Spades is 11 November at 6.30 with performances until 6 December
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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