TCHAIKOVSKY Pique Dame
(Prince Yeletsky), Ewa Podles (Countess), Emily Magee (Lisa), Elena Zaremba (Pauline, Milovzor), Francisco Vas (Chekalinsky), Alberto Feria (Surin), Mikhaïl Vekua (Chaplitsky), Kurt Gysen (Narumov), Jon Plazaola (Master of Ceremonies), Stefania Toczyska (Governess), Claudia Schneider (Masha), Michelle Marie Cook (Prilepa), Escolania de Montserrat, Chorus Intermezzo, Orchestra and Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu / Michael Boder, Gilbert Deflo (director), Pietro d’Agostino (film director).
Sound: LPCM 2.0; DTS 5.1
Opus Arte Blu-ray OA BD 7085 D; DVD OA1050D (2 discs)
Since re-opening in 1999 after a fire
five years earlier did heavy damage to the historic Gran Teatre, Barcelona’s Liceu Opera has developed an impressive pedigree in modernist stagings of repertory classics. At least a dozen of these productions, by a who’s who of contemporary stage directors – Harry Kupfer, Willy Decker, Olivier Py and Calixto Bieito among them – have appeared on DVD and Blu-ray, cementing the Liceu’s reputation for theatrical innovation.
The company’s Gilbert Deflo-directed production of Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame (‘Queen of Spades’), newly issued on Blu-ray by Opus Arte, will not be joining that heady company. This is as traditional a Pique Dame as you’re likely to see, from its intricately painted backdrops to its neatly arrayed lines of female choristers in Empire-waisted gowns. To their credit, set and costume designer William Orlandi and lighting designer Albert Faura have created gorgeously painterly, meticulously researched stage pictures – the production is certainly easy on the eyes, especially on Opus Arte’s crisply engineered discs. But Deflo’s direction is devoid of anything beyond painting-by-numbers traffic patterns and generalized emoting in an opera that cries out for psychological insight.
The cast is a generally solid one in the vocal department, though the principals have only variable success in transcending starchy direction with acting that rivets the attention. The opera focuses on the young soldier, Hermann, whose gambling addiction gradually obsesses him to the point of psychosis. Misha Didyk’s Hermann is clearly pretty mad from the start – a humorless, paranoid sort with a dissociated stare that only fitfully flares into wild-eyed connection with the people around him. There’s no conceivable way that the high-born Lisa (a sensitive and not unintelligent girl) would fall for such a borderline case and choose to run off with him in a rush of erotic fervor.
Yet, if Deflo stumbles badly in creating such a one-note antihero, he’s certainly not alone. I have yet to see – even in the most deftly directed productions of this opera – a Hermann who evinces the youth, swagger, romantic ache and charismatic passion (whether for the gaming table or Lisa’s bed) that this character needs in order to be convincing, let alone one who shows some sort of a journey from apparent normalcy to criminal insanity. I look forward to finding a truly three-dimensional Hermann someday. Until such a day comes, Didyk is a serviceable choice for the role, with his square-jawed good-looks and a mostly attractive, ringing tenor that is, perhaps, a shade too bright and vibrant, and which he punches home a bit too enthusiastically.
Soprano Emily Magee’s Lisa is effective in an unbridled, Wagnerian kind of way, though she looks dyspeptic through much of the opera, as if she had eaten a bad blini shortly before Act 1. Baritone Ludovic Tézier is his usual, frustrating self as Prince Yeletsky – lavishing lovely tone on his big aria, but never rousing himself out of the dead-eyed, emotionless expression that renders so much of this singer’s acting opaque. Baritone Lado Ataneli is a handsome toned, engaging Tomsky (partnered by the vocally fine, dramatically less interesting Francisco Vas and Alberto Feria as his sidekicks, Chekalinsky and Surin).
Contralto Ewa Podles, with her walloping chest voice and silent-movie theatrics, is a pleasure to listen to and great fun to watch as the Countess. Less appealing is mezzo Elena Zaremba’s vinegary, unsubtle rendering of Pauline’s haunting art song. Special mention should be made, though, of veteran mezzo Stefania Toczyska’s brief turn as the Governess, and the charming and sweet-voiced soprano Michelle Marie Cook as the shepherdess Prilepa (in Tchaikovsky’s ingenious, Mozartean pastiche for the Act 2 Intermezzo).
Conductor Michael Boder does superb work in the pit, finding all
the surge and wistful lyricism in the score, and treating the wind and brass writing with great subtlety. His work, though, is not enough to save this very pretty but underwhelming show. Better (if traditional settings are to be insisted upon) to go for the Gergiev-conducted,
Kirov Opera DVD (Philips).
There’s also a strikingly Expressionistic, Graham Vick-directed Glyndebourne disc (from way back in 1992) that really digs into the psychological subtext, and is worth exploring if you can stomach the singing of Yuri Marusin as Hermann (Image Entertainment).
But what we really need is a Blu-ray issue of the Met’s stunning Pique Dame, directed by Elijah Moshinsky (and featuring starry casts each time it has been revived), that finds a canny balance between period lushness and stark modernity, naturalism and dream imagery, grand gestures and moving intimacy. The Met has been generous, of late, with the treasures in its vault. Let’s hope this gem isn’t long in coming.