Dirt on my shoes, moss on my dreams

Note: all these photos show an earlier cast (different Tatiana and Onegin)

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (AKA Евге́ний Оне́гин, Yevgeny Onegin, Evgeny Onegin, Yevgeniy Onegin, Jewgeni Onegin, etc.) is subtitled “lyric scenes.” Barrie Kosky’s striking Komische Oper production is similarly modest, ambiguous of time and place. It revolves around a few striking images and keeps the focus, for better or worse, on the characters.

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The Queen of Spades in Amsterdam


Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades is an opera that swerves between the apparently conventional and the obviously unsettling. As Dostoevskian antihero Herman crashes through 1790s St. Petersburg in search of the three cards that will always win, we can never quite tell what’s real and what’s the product of his feverish, anachronistic mind. And that’s before Stefan Herheim got around to directing it.

But now Herheim has, and on the way to Berlin for some work I went to Amsterdam to see it.

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Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Berliner Philharmoniker

On Saturday night I caught up with the Berlin Philharmonic
at the Philharmonie in a concert led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin of music of
Berio, Chaikovsky, and Ravel. This was my first visit to the Philharmonie and
one of the first times I’d heard the Philharmoniker live conducted by someone
other than their current music director Simon Rattle. My impression of their last performance with Sir Simon (in Carnegie Hall) was decidedly mixed, of technical brilliance
lacking in any perceptible heartbeat. This was also the first time I’d heard
Nézet-Séguin conduct outside the Met, and he, the orchestra, and the concert
hall all left me very impressed indeed.

The program opened with Berio’s Sequenza IXa for solo
clarinet, and odd choice but apparently they are gradually performing the whole
cycle of Sequenze. The Philharmonie’s wonderful acoustics allowed lone clarinetist
Walter Seyfarth to resonate clearly even at the softest dynamics. I know this
piece from, um, playing it (only casually), and Seyfarth’s account was
technically impeccable and extremely clearly thought through. Clarinet
multiphonics (the closest we can get to a double stop) are unreliabe and wheezy
at best but Seyfarth’s were rock solid.  Motives
and structures were clearly defined, but nonetheless it was a bit more an
austere plateau than a collection of giant hairpins.  

Perhaps they chose the clarinet sequenza because the next
piece, Chaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet
Fantasy Overture, opens with a clarinet solo. I don’t know. Anyway, this
Chaikovsky was magical, taken with big ultra-Romantic pathos and rubato and
schmaltz and all that kind of thing that I like in Chaikovsky and occasionally find
suspect in Korngold. Nézet-Séguin took a glutinous approach to the transitions
that made the piece more smooth than exciting, but the orchestra’s considerable
virtuosity and precision in the fight portions was exciting enough. After my
recent spate of neat freak conductors it was nice to hear someone really go for
the emotional payoffs, and the horns’ countermelody was a thing of wonder.

Maybe it was the remnants of jet lag but I have to admit my
attention drifted at a few points during Ravel’s complete Daphnis et Chloe—not that it isn’t very beautiful music but I might
be in favor of performing the suite versions in this case. The orchestra here
sounded more like the one I knew from Rattle, light and precise (even in the
trickiest passages in the winds, including wonderful wind solos and one
slightly wonky violin one), and yet, when required, very very loud.
Nézet-Séguin showed the same flexibility as in the Chaikovsky but also the
needed delicacy. The ahs emanating from the Rundfunk Chor Berlin were also
excellently balanced with each other and the orchestra.

I find many modern concert halls alienating, but the
Philharmonie’s nooks and cranies were fun. It’s like hearing a concert in a
retro spaceship!

This concert is included in the Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall and will soon be available ondemand if you’d like to see it yourself.

Berliner Philharmoniker, Philharmonie, 6/16/12. Yannick
Nézet-Séguin, conductor; Walter Seyforth, clarinet, Rundfunk Chor Berlin.
Berio, Sequenza XIa; Tchaikovsky/Chaikovsky, Fantasy Overture on Romeo and Juliet; Ravel, Daphnis et
Chloe (complete ballet)

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Daniel Harding and Joshua Bell with the NY Phil

I know Bell would prefer HIS picture be here but he didn’t earn that.

I went to hear Daniel Harding conduct the NY Phil in Le sacre du printemps, also featuring Joshua Bell playing the Chaikovsky Violin Concerto, and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.

For one of the most iconic works in the art music repertoire, The Rite of Spring actually isn’t performed very often. This week it made a welcome appearance on a New York Philharmonic program under the baton of British conductor Daniel Harding. It turned out to be the main event of an otherwise routine evening.

You can read the full review here. The Sacre was mighty impressive, the best I’ve heard the Phil play in a while. I don’t think it was my favorite angle on the piece–I’d prefer something more extreme in one direction or another–but the precision and committment were extremely satisfying. I haven’t heard Harding conduct in some time (last and only other time was the Chéreau Così in Vienna, I think) and he’s going on my list of Good Young Ones along with Andris Nelsons and Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

I cannot say the same for Joshua Bell. He gave us all the notes (in record time, possibly) and put a glam sheen on them too, but there was precious little music. I’ve heard him play much better performances than this one, I know he has it in him, so this superficiality was disappointing.

In Stardirigent: The Movie, Daniel Harding will totally be played by Damian Lewis, don’t you think?

Photo copyright Deutsche Grammophon/Harald Hoffmann.

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The Mariinsky, Gergiev and Daniil Trifonov

On Tuesday I went to see the Mariinsky Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. To quote anonymous advisors of Rick Perry from a week or so ago, we’ve got a tired puppy (I mean the orchestra, not somewhat puppy-like pianist Daniil Trifonov, who was not tired at all). But they were still exciting! I wrote about it for Bachtrack. You can read it here.

The orchestra’s sound came as a bit of a shock after all that Viennese refinement. I think I like it, but I may be allergic to that soft-reeded sound of Russian woodwind sections.

Off to the Don tonight.

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Last year at Oneginbad with Herheim and Jansons

You can escape into romantic fantasy if you like–for example, at the opera. But it’s not the best way of solving your problems, and you might end up touching off the Russian Revolution. Such is the message, more or less, of Stefan Herheim’s production of Yevgeny Onegin at the Nederlandse Opera. Modern Onegin is wandering around a bunch of bored nouveaux riches when an obsessively repeating bit of recorded dance music triggers his memory, the live orchestra starts the prelude, and away we go on a journey through Russian history.

This is a show that really goes for broke and is a triumph on just about every count. That live orchestra is no less than the Royal Concertgebouw, with Mariss Jansons conducting, and the all-around strong cast is led by Krassimira Stoyanova’s arguably absolutely perfect Tatiana. And there’s that production…

Chaikovsky, Yevgeny Onegin. De Nederlandse Opera/Holland Festival, 6/20/2011. New production by Stefan Herheim, sets by Philipp Fürhofer, costumes by Gesine Völlm, lighting by Olaf Freese. Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest conducted by Mariss Jansons with Krassimira Stoyanova (Tatiana), Bo Skovhus (Onegin), Andrej Dunaev (Lenski), Mikhail Petrenko (Gremin), Elena Maximova (Olga), Olga Savova (Larina), Guy de Mey (Monsieur Triquet).

First I want to say that this production will be broadcast on June 23 on Mezzo TV and presumably later available on DVD. I encourage you to watch it, and perhaps do so before you read my review–I didn’t read anything about the production before I saw it and I think it was more effective that way. Spoilers, as they say, ahead.

Past and present overlap in this production. Onegin looks back on the chance he lost through the lens of 19th century Russia, and Tatiana also reflects back on the days when she was more of a dreamer. In Pushkin’s poem, Onegin is a “superfluous man,” rich, intelligent, and idle. In Herheim’s production, Onegin’s search for a place in society is equated with Russia’s own perpetual identity crisis. Lensky and Gremin are in part his alter-egos. Lensky is the 19th-century poet who sacrifices himself for his ideals, Gremin is the modern Putin-age capitalist and functionary. Onegin himself is caught in between, passive and powerless.

We enter the story at the moment after Onegin’s Act 3 arioso–which you will know right off if you recognize the recorded music at the start. (That this recorded music, placed somewhere upstage, is more “realistic” than the much richer sound of the actual orchestra is only the first of the production’s ironies.) Until we reach that point in Act 3, everything is a dreamy flashback. The unit set is the tacky marble-walled salon of the opening, but a diamond-shaped glass room in its center unveils Onegin and Tatiana’s memories, first revealing Larina and Filipevna. Later, the room produces peasants resembling colorful Russian dolls (who sing together with the modern guests from the opening), and a full-fledged nineteenth-century ball.

Sometimes the staging is straightforwardly plot-oriented but makes you understand the characters in a whole new light: when Onegin and Lensky first appear, Olga is interested in Onegin, not Lensky, and Onegin seems to go to Tatiana just to tease her. Lensky is even something of an ignored loser. The events that lead to the duel suddenly make a lot more sense.

But it’s not all that simple. In the Letter Scene, Tatiana lives or relives her writing as Gremin sleeps, and Onegin simultaneously writes a letter to her or takes her dictation (remember how he sings the music from her aria in Act 3?). She gets to sing it to him as she imagines him, and he gets to witness what he missed (she even manages to transform the Gremin in her bed into Onegin by the end of the scene). It’s a gratifying change for everyone, audience included–usually we don’t get to see Onegin and Tatiana in love with each other but here we do and awwwww–but, still, it’s only in their imaginations. That, in fact, is the point.

Other fantasies are more dangerous. In the midst of a fancy ball complete with giant dancing bear (the turntable of the glass room is used to great effect, none of the poem’s provincialism here), the Baroque M. Triquet summons a large star that shoots sparks, setting his giant wig on fire, to general hilarity. Um, was that just a joke or was it the revolution of 1905? Watch out for those stars. Challenging Onegin, Lensky gets ahold of Tatiana’s red book and the glowing star is replaced with a flaming iron one, and the ball is invaded by armed men. Welcome to the Russian Revolution. As history, its interaction with the plot is dubious–I guess the poet loses his innocence and takes violent action (while still depending on the fantasies found in his books, this time a red one). But the sense of honor involved in a duel doesn’t fit with that. As theater, however, my jaw may have literally dropped.

After the personal drama of the first half (which extends up to the first ball), the second half is comparatively scattershot and aims some jokes at giant Soviet targets. But it’s still massively entertaining. In the duel, Onegin kills off nineteenth-century Romanticism by shooting Lensky in the back. In the Polonaise at the ball that follows, we see a parade of Soviet icons: ballet dancers, cosmonauts, steroid-enhanced Olympic athletes, etc., none of whom can help Onegin or Russia find their way. Tatiana and Gremin now appear in kitschy glitter. And we have gotten to the point where we started. At the very end, Gremin encourages Onegin to shoot himself, but takes out the bullets first. Onegin is powerless to the very end.

In a production as complex and involving as this one, the specific musical choices tend not to stick out–not because they aren’t important, but just because there is so much to look at and think about. That was not the case here, which was close to musically ideal. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the pit was a rare luxury, and sounded exquisite, though not Russian at all. This was Jansons’s approach, which favored delicacy and transparency over bombast and soupy sentimentalism and showed beautiful details of texture and phrasing. They also proved to be considerably better accompanists than the very loud Berliner Philharmoniker, and despite a shallow orchestra pit balances were excellent. The chorus also sounded very good. (It must be noted that Jansons must be using a Von Karajan 2000 XTall Edition podium, and was very visible at all points.)

Bo Skovhus was a good Onegin for many of the same reasons he was miscast as Mandryka in Vienna in March. His lyric, expressive voice and urbane air are perfect as this confused but unusually personable Onegin, though he overacts at times. The real vocal highlight of the performance was Krassimra Stoyanova’s glorious Tatiana, sung with ease, beautifully rich and slightly dark tone and perfect musicality. She tends to be a cool actress, but here found a very sympathetic restrained warmth and vulnerability that was touching without ever being too much. (Overacting must be tempting in Herheim productions. You’ve got a lot of competition. Did I mention the giant dancing bear?) Andrej Dunaev sounded ardent and impassioned as Lensky, perhaps a bit too ardent and consistently loud at times. A little more expressive subtlety would have helped in the aria. The three other ladies were excellent, particularly Elena Maximova’s sparky Olga. Mikhail Petrenko was onstage a lot more than most Gremins (though his role was defined by a lack of personality), and sang the aria with expansive but still lyric tone.

In all, a marvelous night at the opera. Don’t miss this one, even if you have to wait for the DVD. Performances continue in Amsterdam through the beginning of July.


The Muziektheater in Amsterdam is a modern venue, located in the same building as the city hall and shaped like an arena similar to the Großes Festspielhaus in Salzburg (though considerably smaller). It’s not beautiful and the many little light bulbs look like a movie theater, but it’s a lot better than the Opéra Bastille. Logistically, however, it seems to suffer something of a shortage of bicycle parking (this is Amsterdam), leading to a lot of clutter outside.

Production photos copyright Forster.

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Yevgeny Onegin: Love in a cold climate

There’s a chance that this was my last rep performance at the Staatsoper this season, so it’s a shame I have to go out on a mediocre note. This revival of Falk Richter’s dire production is notable and perhaps worth seeing for Peter Mattei’s stellar assumption of the title role. But this isn’t really a star vehicle opera. I guess some people can overlook the incoherence in rest of it more easily than I can, but I didn’t find it a satisfying experience. Maija Kovalevska’s Tatiana isn’t that bad, though.

Chaikovsky, Eugen Onegin. Wiener Staatsoper, 6/11/2011. Production by Falk Richter (revival), conducted by Michael Güttler with Maija Kovalevska (Tatiana), Peter Mattei (Onegin), Marius Benciu (Lensky), Ain Anger (Gremin), Nadia Krasteva (Olga), Zoryana Kushpler (Larina), Aura Twarowska (Filipjewna).

Falk Richter’s production is a grab bag of clichés that come and go. The one constant is an awful lot of falling snow in nearly every scene. Dress is modern, set is minimal, and blocking is static. Color symbolism, imaginary characters and doublings, and really annoying acrobats are combined into a static, chilly mix that shows little interest in the story and characters, or any sensitivity to the music at all. At first, we see doubles of Tatiana with a mystery man as frozen couples in the background, and the happy peasants also seem to belong to her fantasy world, identifiably by its, um, romantic navy blue business suits. The more practical characters wear red. If anyone wants to make this red mean something obviously significant and Communist, I would first caution you that this production doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Russia at all. The blue plus red plus white snow does look like a Russian flag, though (after my Italian flag the other week). Also, he forgets about all this after Act 1.

Letter Scene

Act 2 features a truly dreadful party scene that includes awkwardly enthusiastic attempts at current dance styles by the chorus, further flips by said acrobats, and, because we’re in Austria, some people in puffy shiny dresses waltzing (Tatiana incongruously wearing diva-approved long sleeves). I kind of liked Monsieur Triquet as a faded rock star, but like everything else he doesn’t have a point. Act 3 involves lots of people in black walking up and down stairs quite slowly. I was hoping Tatiana or Onegin would rip off her bedazzled shower cap, but they didn’t. That would have made everything a little more exciting and less Norma Desmond-looking. I could go on, but I’ll try not to, because the main sin of this production is that it is not interesting. The lighting design is also far too dark at times, including a Letter Scene that while not too dark is lit entirely from the back (see above), the lack of front light means you can’t see Tatiana’s face clearly. OK, I’ll stop.

For two lead singers, both new to this production and in fact making their house debuts, the staging offered little help in terms of characterization, and while both showed good acting skills they ended up a little underdeveloped and generic. Maija Kovalevska cuts a pretty figure as Tatiana and is a good actress, within the unfortunate strictures of this production. I never warmed to her metallic, tense sound and fast vibrato, but her singing was musical and rock solid secure, and she can manage impressive power in her upper register. On the other hand, Peter Mattei is seemingly incapable of making a less than beautiful sound, with a chocolately baritone that he never forces (his voice is not large but it is well-projected). His Onegin went on a clear journey from arrogance (Act 1) to boredom (Act 2) to despondency (Act 3), but I think he was much better in this Salzburg production available on DVD.

Act 3

Michael Güttler conducted a rushed account of the prelude followed by an ensemble in which the sisters’ offstage singing had little to do with whatever the harp was playing in the pit. It got a little better. Being too tough on Güttler would be cruel since he probably didn’t get any rehearsal, but this was not good and the orchestra was not trying very hard. In the rest of the cast, Marius Brenciu was a thin-toned, underacted Lensky, though his pp account of the aria’s second strophe was nice. Ain Anger is the youngest and least crusty Gremin this side of René Pape and sang lyrically and not so giant Russian-ly but well. As Olga, Madame Larina, and Filipjewa, Nadia Krasteva, Zoryana Kushpler, and Aura Twarowska showed that the Staatsoper ensemble has a smashing group of Slavic mezzos and altos, all three of them outstanding. Somewhere there’s got to be an opera by Cui or Dargomyzhsky or somebody that has three lading mezzo/alto roles for these impressive ladies.

If you want to go hear them in Onegin, well, you can do that too. Performances remain on June 10 and 13.

Video: Peter Mattei in said Salzburg production

Photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper.

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The Budapest Festival Orchestra’s highs and lows

The Budapest Festival Orchestra and their music director Iván Fischer came to the Musikverein last night with an odd program of Bartók (Dance Suite for Orchestra Sz 77), Paganini (Violin Concerto No. 1), and Chaikovsky (Symphony No. 5). It’s not bad programming per se, but it seemed a little bit on the random side. I suppose the Bartók and Chaikovsky both have dance things going on? (Which is something you could say for a lot of music.)

I really like this orchestra, with their dry sound and vaguely Russian brass, but I wasn’t as blown away this time as I was by their Konzerthaus concert last September. But they are still a very good orchestra indeed. If only this program had come together a little better. The Bartók Dance Suite was new in title to me, though I’ve heard some parts of it before in other Bartók pieces. It was an unusual choice to open the program, because the orchestra is treated quite sectionally and it was hard to get a good sense of their general sound. However, the playing was very fine, with wonderful transparency between sections.

Yes, really.

Judging by the hobbit hair and the PR accompanying his CD, violin soloist József Lendvay sees himself as the embodiment of the demonic Hungarian Gypsy fiddler. But while his first Paganini concerto would be suitable for a Heuriger somewhere, this astonishingly sloppy performance was not fit for the Musikverein. Granted, he has a rather good flying staccato and plays it all very quickly, but more notes were wrong than right, and most of them were not in the right places, either. The whole concerto was pervaded by rubato and twisted rhythms with no musical logic, and even simple passages showed little grace and wretched intonation (nearly every harmonic squeaked in the way they do when you don’t tune them quite right). Just awful. He got a large ovation, making me distrust the collective ears of the Viennese public (this was perhaps not the usual crowd; they applauded a lot after the first movement of a perfectly conventional concerto, I wanted to in the hope that he would stop). Paging Julia Fischer! Or Hilary Hahn! We need you!

(I prefer writing positive reviews, I really like liking things, but I understand why people bash performances so much. It is so much easier to write. I think it is richly deserved in this case.)

It could only get better after that. And it did. The Chaikovsky Symphony no. 5 was very good, a good completion for my Jansons No. 4 and Barenboim No. 6 earlier this season. Fischer had his eye on the trajectory of the entire piece, starting off restrained and somber in the first movement. The horn solo in the second movement was a bit disappointingly blank, but the movement built up to a very impressive and clearly planned climax, even though the movement itself feels like leftovers from the Symphony No. 4 (fate motive? check. pizzicati? check.) plus some of the better bits of the Swan Lake finale. The third movement was quiet, played as a soft interlude between the outpourings of the second and fourth, and the staccato passages in the strings could have used more lightness. The fourth movement turned very gaudy, with the bright brass pretty much blasting everyone else out of the water. The ending was taken at an impressive clip, perhaps to disguise that it is about 4 minutes of straight V — I alternations.

A mixed bag but mostly redeemed by the Chaik.

Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer, conductor. Musikverein, 5/11/2011. Program: Bartók, Dance Suite for Orchestra Sz 77; Pagaini, Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major; Chaikovsky/Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5 in e minor.

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Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin cut the pathos

Compared to Friday night’s Dudamel extravaganza, there was a lot of elbow room in the Musikverein’s standing room section on Thursday night for Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin. But I found this evening the more rewarding of the two by a significant margin. This was the final entry in a three-concert series of Bartók’s piano concertos (in reverse order, with Yefim Bronfman) and Chaikovsky’s final three symphonies (in order).

The orchestra (generally found in the pit at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden) perhaps cannot compete with the Philharmoniker of Vienna or Berlin in terms of sheer sound, but their ensemble and level of detail was very, very fine, and solo playing was also excellent. I am not too familiar with Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which belongs to the percussion section of Bartók piano music. This performance did not serve as a good introduction, with muddy playing from Bronfman that often didn’t project over the orchestra. My more-knowledgeable concert-going companion attributed this in part to the Musikverein’s obligatory in-house Bösendorfer, not a piano that specializes in crispness. The orchestra sounded excellent, though, particularly some beautiful wind solos in the second movement.

The Chaikovsky Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique) that followed intermission was outstanding, and all the more remarkable for avoiding hysteria. In the first movement, Barenboim steadfastly declined to wallow in melody or overdrive the louder sections, resulting in a detached, autumnal, Brahmsian character that was strikingly fresh and persuasive (OK, OK, especially fresh if you’re a Mravinsky addict like me). Unusual details emerged, and the narrative pacing was masterful. The second movement was a hazy, otherwordly dance, the timpani in the trio emerging with rare and ghostly clarity.

For much of the third movement Barenboim again kept from overdoing it, with more light, cheery virtuosity than immediate chaos. This allowed for a remarkably dramatic ending to the movement, where the orchestra finally let loose into fragmented loudness. A large portion of the audience broke into applause at the end of the movement, which surprised me, Viennese audiences usually don’t do that kind of thing, but given the performance it was a natural reaction. The last movement was a return to the character of the first; not as much Romantic tragedy but Greek in its solemn grandeur.

There were encores on both halves, some Bizet piano pieces for four hands (Bronfman plus Barenboim, of course) before the pause and a beautiful bit of Sibelius’s music for Pélleas et Mélisande followed by an immensely impressive Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila at the end. Opera house orchestras have stamina.

I wish I had heard one or both of the other concerts in this series, but I heard an excellent Chaik 4 from the Royal Concertgebouw and Jansons last fall and will get a hopefully excellent Chaik 5 from the Budapest Festival Orchestra in May. But I still wouldn’t have minded more of them. Chaikovsky is overprogramed here, but he’s a composer I can happily hear over and over.

Report on (sigh) Dudamel soon.

Staatskapelle Berlin, conducted by Daniel Barenboim with Yefim Bronfman, piano. Musikverein, 2/3/2011. Program: Bartók, Piano Concerto No. 1; Chaikovsky/Tchaikovsky [hi Google!], Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique.”

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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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