The Queen of Spades [Pique Dame] – Opera in three acts to a libretto by Modest Tchaikovsky and the composer after Pushkin’s novella
Gherman – Vladimir Galouzine
Chekalinsky – Robin Leggate
Surin – Jeremy White
Count Tomsky – Vassily Gerello
Prince Yeletsky – Gerald Finley
Countess – Larissa Diadkova
Liza – Mlada Khudoley
Paulina – Enkelejda Shkosa
Masha – Elizabeth Sikora
Governess – Carole Wilson
Major-domo – Alasdair Elliott
Chaplitsky – Andrew Sritheran
Narumov – Krzysztof Szumanski
Boy ‘Commander’ – Philip Sheppard
Prilepa – Kishani Jayasinghe
Milovzor – Enkelejda Shkosa
Zlatogar – Vassily Gerello
The Royal Opera Chorus
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Francesca Zambello – Director
Julia Pevzner – Associate Director
Peter J. Davison – Sets
Nicky Gillibrand – Costumes
Mark McCullough – Lighting
Vivienne Newport – Choreography
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: 11 November, 2006
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
This was the Royal Opera House’s “second revival of Francesca Zambello’s revised production”, first seen in 2001 conducted by Bernard Haitink, a staging that has already listed some excellent casts that have included the likes of Plácido Domingo, Karita Mattila, Thomas Allen, Josephine Barstow and the late and much-missed Susan Chilcott, not to mention Vladimir Galouzine – the original Gherman, here reprising his performance.
This revival has several trumps in its playing hand and Galouzine in certainly one of them. The role is one of the most demanding in the repertory, requiring not only stamina and good vocalism but wide ranging dramatic talent and Galouzine has all those attributes. And to make it work totally it is always better if the singer is a Russian! Galouzine is tireless, and sings the part with full-throated lyricism when needed in the duets with Liza, but also excels in the more declamatory passages where Gherman’s single-minded obsession with the Countess and the three cards is musically delineated. Perhaps a slight beat intrudes at forte more than it used to – but it remains a compelling vocal performance and so much more satisfying than his forays into Puccini for example. He is one of those actors who can hold a stage and make his presence felt even when on the margins of it and the action. His charting of Gherman’s mental and physical deterioration is very believable, even in this production where he seems halfway to madness as the curtain opens.
The luxury casting of Larissa Diadkova as the Countess is also a masterstroke. In many of the big opera houses of the world in the last decade or so this part has been given to divas in the twilight of their careers; those who can steal the scenes and can vocally get by but whose voices have sometimes seen better days. Not here! Diadkova is a real Russian contralto with an unbelievably rich lower register that can be beguiling or stentorian as the need arises; and she remains her absolute prime. What a treat to hear the part truly sung. She is also an operatic diva with something of the ‘old-school’ about her in that her acting is rather amplified and broad-stroke – just what this part needs. She was a major force in the drama from her first entrance, with her posture and face telling you all you needed to know about the character, and her powerful voice registered in the peculiar harmonic textures of the first quintet in the opening scene. That she could then deliver her famous Grétry aria on such a thin sliver of sound but still imbue those low notes with all the velvety tone that is her trademark was remarkable. The audience responded by listening with rapt attention and in real silence.
As the only non-Russian in the principal line up Gerald Finley held his own and gave a honeyed account of Prince Yeletsky’s aria – beautiful legato and mellow tone, with a ringing top as well. He acted the part well, too. Vassily Gerello’s Tomsky was also finely sung and presented the genial side of this character. If a dimension was missing it was the slightly sinister and Machiavellian aspect of the character that others have brought to the role in other productions.
The Royal Opera’s other lucky card is the orchestra and conductor. Semyon Bychkov conducted an energetic account of the score, and certainly did not dawdle or over-romanticise Tchaikovsky’s lush and conventionally operatic moments. Instead much of the drama was played out in the pit – with lean and at times almost astringent textures and a propulsive quality that moved the action forward. The brass was on especially fine form and the strings particularly so when wistfully accompanying Diadkova in her aria. Bychkov is also very considerate to the singers who one felt never were competing with the pit but rather were truly integrated within the orchestral palette.
Militating against all this musical excellence is Francesca Zambello’s curiously unsatisfying production, which does not improve with repeated viewing. It seems hamstrung by its overblown sets (admittedly beautifully lit) and some gimmicky effects. To have theatre boxes stuck to one side of the stage and then have major characters appearing in them as part of the action when at least one-third of the house will be unable to see them seems rather perverse. To then add a steeply angled snowdrift up against the boxes upon which characters seem nervous to move about on, and which obliterates about a third of the stage floor space seems equally strange. Zambello’s usual theatrical flair also seems to have deserted her for this production as the claustrophobic and melodramatic aspects of the story are very much muted.
Does the production allow one to really feel complicit in the goading of Gherman by Tomsky, Chekalinsky and Surin, to feel for Liza’s predicament, to care about Yeletsky’s betrayal by Liza? One can admire the performers, but the dramatic impact that can be there is missing. Strange, when some of her great productions are of Russian works – think of her “Khovanshchina”, and her fantastic “War and Peace” at the Bastille in Paris.
This lack of dramatic coherence particularly seemed to affect the Liza of this revival, Mlada Khudoley. She has an attractive presence and a rather Slavic-sounding voice that has a very firm middle register. At the top, particularly early in the evening, she showed a tendency to be a little unruly and unfocussed, and as such her Act One aria did not quite make the impact it could have. By the time of her final aria she seemed more in her stride, though her death was rather perfunctorily enacted. It seemed she might be over-parted, but her biography states she not only sings Salome, but also Senta and Renata – two notorious voice-wrecking roles. One hopes this is not a case of too much too soon.
Mention should be made of some of the important secondary roles. Enkelejda Shkosa delivered a mellow account of Paulina’s music, battling in her first aria with a mobile phone, but sprightly in Milovzor’s music in the masque. Messrs White and Leggate made their presence felt, and Elizabeth Sikora made more of the part of Masha the maid than one would have thought possible (she also doubled as the non-singing Catherine the Great).
This revival of “The Queen of Spades” should be heard for Bychkov’s interpretation and musical performance and especially for Diadkova, Galouzine and Finley. The production is not one of the best, but if you go sit in the centre or to the left-hand side of the auditorium if you wish to see it all!
- Remaining performances on 15, 18, 20, 23 & 28 November, and on 2 & 6 December – all at 7.00 except 2 December at 6.30
- Box office: 020 7304 4000
- Royal Opera