A Dark Lady
Tchaikovsky's 'Queen of Spades'
appeals to GIUSEPPE PENNISI
appeals to GIUSEPPE PENNISI
Pikovaya dama (generally translated into English as either as Pique Dame or as The Queen of Spades) is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's penultimate opera. Musicologist Richard Tarusking considers it as 'the first and possibly the greatest masterpiece of musical surrealism'. The quotation is especially appropriate to the production I saw and heard in Rome's Teatro dell'Opera on 19 June 2015. This is not a brand new production — I remember experiencing it in a slightly different form in February 2002 at the Teatro Comunale of Ferrara — but a joint effort which began at Welsh National Opera, co-produced with Den Norske Opera (Oslo), the Opera Houses of Bologna and Rome and the Canadian Opera Company. On a lease basis, it travelled to other countries including Australia and New Zealand. The stage director is Richard Jones. His deputy Benjamin Davis worked specifically on the Teatro dell'Opera series of performances.
The first highlight moves the action from the eighteenth century (as requested by the Imperial Theatres when it was first premiered) to the beginning of the twentieth century. From the sets and costumes (by John Macfarlane) you sense a decaying society, where even the Palace and very apartment of the Countess are run-down, and the aristocracy's attire has a rather cheap look; after all we are in Russia just before World War I and the Soviet Revolution.
The production's second highlight is the very dark and tormented atmosphere of both the environment and the protagonist. Gherman is quite ambiguous: it is not clear whether he seduces Liza only for the utilitarian goal of having access to the Countess' bedroom and stealing her gambling secrets (as in Pushkin's novel) or whether he is sincerely in love with her, even though he has his mind set on gambling (as the Imperial Theatres requested of the composer and librettist in around 1889). This is the norm for traditional productions, such as one I saw at St Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre. No doubt the very dark and tormented atmosphere is one reason for this production's appeal.
James Conlon conducted. His approach was quite different from that of Vladimir Jurowski (who I heard in Ferrara some thirteen years ago) or Valery Gergiev (who conducted in St Petersburg and at a concert performance of Pique Dame in Rome). Conlon dilates the tempi, making the opera darker and accentuating the anguish of all the main characters, whilst Jurowski and Gergiev have a faster pace toward the final tragedy. The Rome Opera Orchestra did quite well.
The singers are excellent, especially Maksim Aksenov who showed a very clear timbre and an extraordinary C natural. Elena Zaremba is a spectral and cruel Countess, really terrifying when she appears as the Pique Dame. Oksana Dyka is Liza, full of doubts and torments rather than being sweet. Among the others are the excellent Tómas Tómasson as a turbid Count Tomsky, and Vitalij Bilyy in the only clearly positive role (Prince Yeletsky), whose arioso received a well-deserved open stage applause. The chorus and children's chorus have an important part, and they fared well under Roberto Gabbiani's direction.