The Queen of Spades: The long dark tea-time of the soul

You got a rotting old pile of a palace, you invite the young people in to spruce it up, and before you know it they’re lighting it up in rainbow colors.  Such is the Old Countess’s problem in Vera Nemirova’s production of The Queen of Spades.  As Russian history it’s dubious and as Chaikovsky opera it’s graceless, but between Anja Silja in full-on Madame Armfeldt mode, Angela Denoke’s dynamite Lisa, and the efforts of Neil Shicoff as Hermann, it works anyways.

Chaikovsky, The Queen of Spades (Pique Dame) Wiener Staatsoper, 22 September 2010.  Conducted by Tugan Sokhiev, production by Vera Nemirova, with Neil Shicoff (Hermann), Angela Denoke (Lisa), Anja Silja (Countess), Boaz Daniel (Yeletsky), Albert Dohmen (Tomsky), Zoryana Kushpler (Polina).

Nemirova’s production is set in the world of the Russia’s post-Cold War nouveau riche (riches noveaux?).  Everything happens on a unit set, the stately entryway of a dusty, run-down palace.  It is less a literal location than a way-station for all the characters and their various activities–this is not an opera you can put on a unit set and be realistic–but it’s atmospheric and has a nice faded grandeur and well-observed details.  The non-Old Countess characters plot remodeling, stage a tasteless burlesque of an intermezzo on the grand staircase, and finally bring in slot machines and the multi-colored lighting plot of the damned (ugliest lighting ever, intentionally).  It’s a simplification of the many layers of past and present found in the score, here crushed into a dusty gothic tangle, but I don’t think it’s exactly a distortion.


When I tried to make sense of the concept as a historical setting I got a bit of a headache.  The Old Countess laments the younger generation’s lack of style, skill, forethought, etc., and when you see the slot machines you have got to agree with her.  But this is modern Russia and what came before that i.e. Communism wasn’t exactly known for its ravishing glamor.  The opening scene seems to feature a just-barely-post-Communist wasteland, from there we move into ever-increasing decadence.  But the Old Countess appears in the place of Catherine at the end of Act 2 and still is wearing the imperial-style dress in Act 3, which makes me think that the people are trying to dust off their grand palace and recover the imperial period but end up with tacky modernity instead?  Of course this means the Old Countess is very old indeed, perhaps her initials are E.M.?

But I didn’t even try to work this out until afterwards, and maybe shouldn’t have bothered, because despite this Nemirova does a good job telling the story, without special effects except a few flapping windows.  Anja Silja pretty much IS the Old Countess.  Her voice can’t do much more than audibly carry a tune, but she has unstoppable charisma, and this role seems made for her, from her first entrance to the moment she spots Hermann behind her in her makeup mirror to her brief revival (unnecessarily put through a distorting speaker).

In his Staatsoper debut, Tugan Sokhiev led a well-paced account of the score with good attention to the changing moods–more variety than Nemirova, really.  The climaxes all happened effectively enough, though the performance as a whole lacked the kind of explosive propulsion and wildness you get with Gergiev.  In the central role of Hermann, Neil Shicoff was a compelling actor, though so clearly bonkers from the opening he didn’t take us on much of a journey.  His voice is worn and not capable of much lyricism, and his rhythms were approximate, but his considerable commitment helped in the most intense moments of the score.

Lighting plot of the damned

Angela Denoke was the most convincing Lisa I have seen (I’m at four and counting).  It’s not an easy part, you always wonder why Lisa doesn’t choose Yeletsky, but Denoke’s Lisa was every bit Hermann’s match in insanity and isolation even though the libretto never fills out her character’s motivations.  Her voice is bright, almost white, very big in the upper reaches.  She and Shicoff were impressive together, I’m not sure if they’ve done this opera together before but there was more interaction than you usually see at the Staatsoper.

Smaller roles were uneven: while Yeletsky can walk off with the opera with his fantastic aria, Boaz Daniel sounded under the weather and weak on the high notes.  Albert Dohmen as Tomsky lacked top notes and resonance as well.  One surprise highlight was Zoryana Kushpler’s beautiful dark mezzo and musicality in Polina’s brief aria.

This is the third production of this opera I’ve seen in the last two years. Like Elijah Moshinsky’s (gorgeous) Met production, it has a strange obsession with umbrellas (??).  Thilo Reinhardt’s Komische Oper production is also set in modern Russia, but with less dust and more mobsters, it is vivid and exciting but more of a psycho-thriller take on the story.  Nemirova’s production is less striking than either, but this performance was a worthy effort none the less.

Also, the Staatsoper shop has abandoned their usual soundtrack of crossover crap for the new Jonas Kaufmann CD, which first made me wonder who the hell thought screaming tenor verismo arias as background music was a good idea, but more on point made me wonder if he will ever sing Hermann.  Which is to say he should, because that would be awesome.  (Give me a few weeks, er, days to get over the fact that CDs cost 20 Euros here and I might write about this one.)

Next: Budapest Festival Orchestra with András Schiff on Tuesday.

Blurry Bows:

All photos except for the last one by the Wiener Staatsoper.

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