The Queen of Spades

The Queen of Spades (Pique Dame) – Opera in three acts to a libretto by Modest Tchaikovsky after Pushkin [Concert performance]

Hermann – Gegam Grigorian
Count Tomsky – Viktor Chernomortsev
Prince Yeletsky – Alexander Gergalov
Countess – Irina Bogacheva
Liza – Olga Sergeeva
Polina – Nadezhda Serdiuk
Chekalinsky – Dmitry Voropaev
Surin – Alexey Tanovitsky
Chaplitsky – Neil Mackenzie
Narumov – Edward Price
Master of Ceremonies – John Bowley
Governess – Lynette Alcántara
Masha – Eleanor Meynell
Make-believe Commander – Jake Barlow
Prilepa/Chloë – Hasmik Grigorian
Milovzor/Daphnis – Nadezhda Serdiuk
Zlatogor/Plutus – Viktor Chernomortsev

BBC Singers
Stockport Grammar School Junior Singers

BBC Philharmonic
Gianandrea Noseda

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 29 May, 2004
Venue: Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

If you accept a broader definition of the word ‘music’ and grant the ‘extra-musical’ elements of opera the same emotive and elemental function, then it’s pretty easy to get around what can be the absurd aspects of a libretto and see them as extensions of the score. This in turn provides a way of ‘getting’ the shape of an interpretation. And the beauty of a concert performance is that the listener is free to imagine the physical landscape, unencumbered by a woefully inadequate staging.

For the Queen of Spades Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest fashioned a libretto adapted from Pushkin’s novella that is substantially different from its source, most notably in the fate of the two chief protagonists. In Pushkin Lisa lives to marry a minor civil servant and Hermann is institutionalised. But the theatre director Vsevoloshsky wanted a real crowd-pleaser, so instead we have Lisa flinging herself into the river and Hermann stabbing himself to death. Inadvertently, these changes (as well as that of having Hermann genuinely in love with Lisa as opposed to Pushkin having his hero cynically using her to get at the secret of the ‘three cards’), furnish Tchaikovsky with the chief means of uniting the story to the score. For his is the world of emotion, and what bigger engines are there to drive the emotions than Love and Death. And what more explicit analogues for each other are there?

Tchaikovsky’s score is a surging maelstrom of emotion, with almost every scene climaxing in orchestral frenzy. And although he disliked Wagner’s art, Tchaikovsky admitted that his own music would be quite different (the extensive use of leitmotifs aside) were it not for that master of sexual sublimation. More unequivocal, though, is the way exterior events mirror the emotions of the characters (such as the choruses commenting on both the natural and social context of events, and sunshine changing to storm). Tchaikovsky’s music is here virtually programmatic. And then there is the use of deliberate anachronism to point up similarities and contrasts, the chief example being the Scene Three pastoral (the play-within-a-play) with its rustic dances and rococo sentiment; indeed, the whole setting is infused with an almost commedia dell’arte unreality, replete with quotations from Mozart and Bortnyansky.

Gianandrea Noseda’s pedigree (among others he studied with Valery Gergiev, and was invited by him to be Principal Guest Conductor at the Mariinsky Theatre in 1997) was very much in evidence in this performance. His vigorous, muscular technique and splendid control was apparent right from the orchestral introduction of the first act – the first violins spent almost as much time out of their seats as in them, such was the energy Noseda managed to infuse. And that energy did not slacken for the opera’s entire duration.

The principals, all drawn from the Mariinsky Theatre (Kirov Opera), were uniformly excellent, though it has to be said that Gegam Grigorian seemed to lose a lot of power early on, as though he were labouring under the effects of a cold. But he more than made up for this by his obvious familiarity with the role (he has recorded the work with the Kirov Opera under Gergiev for Philips), resulting in the expressive naturalness of his declaration of love to Lisa in Act Two and their duet in Scene Six, and his convincing final descent into madness.

Soprano Olga Sergeeva was sublime in the part of Lisa, with a rich, silvery tone capable of a seemingly infinite expressive range. Her suicide scene was an absolute knockout. Also wonderful, in the part of the Countess, was veteran performer Irina Bogacheva, her dark, solid mezzo casting an ominous pall over the love of Hermann and Lisa.

The BBC Singers found top form; particularly beautiful were the Countess’s funeral hymn and the final chorus of the guests, with its Byzantine colourings and harmonic simplicity.

The BBC Philharmonic, too, was very impressive, filling out the excellent acoustics of the Bridgewater Hall with a full, expansive sound, within which all sections were carefully delineated. Its responsiveness to Noseda was unequivocal: tuttis and solo passages alike were delivered with grandeur and conviction, thus cementing the seamless link between music and interpretation.

Judging from the audience response between scenes, not to mention the ecstatic ovation at the opera’s close, the Manchester public enjoyed this wonderful performance as much as I did.

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