Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Pique Dame
Wiener Staatsoper, 2015
Marko Letonja, Vera Nemirova, Aleksandrs Antonenko, Tómas Tómasson, Markus Eiche, Barbara Haveman, Marjana Lipovsek, Elena Maximova, Thomas Ebenstein, Sorin Coliban, Benedikt Kobel, Janusz Monarcha, Clemens Unterreiner, Aura Twarowska, Caroline Wenborne
Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home - 28 January 2015
It's probably not a coincidence that Tchaikovsky's two most popular operas, Eugene Onegin and Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades), are both taken from works from Alexander Pushkin. Tchaikovsky would take creative inspiration from several other sources in his operas and ballets and find a certain Russian character in them, but there's a pure Russian Romanticism in Pushkin's work that clearly appealed to the composer and inspired his most successful musical dramas. It's Eugene Onegin that presents grand Romantic sentiments in their purest form and they are expressed with great yearning in Tchaikovsky's score, but Pique Dame finds other Russian characteristics tied to similar themes that Tchaikovsky also successfully translates into music.
Gambling is one such device that is used in Russian literature to express the extravagant Romanticism of the Russian soul in the abandonment of oneself into the hands of fate. It's there in Dostoevsky in 'The Gambler', and it's there in Niikolai and Doholov's card games in Tolstoy's 'War and Peace'. In most cases, it's more than just a device, gambling a very real Russian problem that almost destroyed Tolstoy in real life. In the case of Hermann in The Queen of Spades, there's a similar 'all or nothing' attitude to his gambling, that will either be his salvation or destroy him, and it's inextricably linked (or is just another manifestation of the deeper gambler/Russian psychology) in Hermann's feelings for Liza.
Hermann knows he has no hope of his love for Liza being acknowledged, much less reciprocated. She's engaged to marry a handsome officer, Yeletsky, but Hermann throws himself at her mercy nonetheless. "Decide my fate!", he pleads, or blackmails, since he's holding a gun to his own head as he confesses that he cannot live if she refuses him. For her part, Liza is not indifferent to Hermann's declarations. On the contrary, she herself is fatalistically attracted to this mysterious dark figure who she has seen watching her from the background. There's plenty of room then in this alone for an Anna Karenina-like mutual rush to self-destruction, but Pushkin's story has another element that raises the stakes.
Pique Dame attaches such already heightened sentiments to what is essentially a ghost story. Hermann in his despair believes that Liza could never marry him because he isn't rich like Yeletsky. In his all or nothing frenzy, Hermann is prepared to pay whatever price is necessary, and the only option is gambling for the highest stakes. Aware of the legend of the three cards that surrounds the Countess, an infallible sequence of winning cards that can only be revealed to "one impelled by burning passion" (that's Hermann all right). Once a great gambler herself, known as the Queen of Spades, revealing the secret would however mean her death. In the event, it's only after her death at the hand of Hermann, that her ghost reveals the three cards that will seal his fate.
There's tremendous drama for Tchaikovsky to get his teeth into here, but Pique Dame is - for the most part, I find - surprisingly tame in its scoring. Pushkin's original work is a short story and benefits from its concision, but Pique Dame - even though it is imaginatively expanded with considerable colour - tends to dilute the intensity of the original. Tchaikovsky undoubtedly extends the Russian character of the work with choruses, a drinking song, a gaming song and a pastoral Intermezzo 'The Tender-hearted Shepherdess', but the most successful passages of the opera are those that relate to the ghost story and the passions of Hermann and Liza.
It's those aspects that also work best in Vera Nemirova's direction for the Vienna State Opera. Nemirova's production has no time for the usual Russian clichés and sets the work, for some unknown reason, in what appears to be an orphanage. This avoids the period trapping of wealth, privilege and position, the children looked after in the opening not by nurses and nannies, but by care workers. The orphanage building is also used throughout for interiors and exteriors, but it has a suitably ghost-like monastery appearance that suits the mood. Likewise avoiding old social trappings, the Intermezzo at the fancy-dress ball looks more like a showgirl cabaret here.
It's all reasonably moody and effective, particularly the apparition scene. In terms of distinctive directorial touches, there's nothing too outlandish attempted. The old Countess, for example, is not killed with a gunshot, but in the killing embrace of Hermann as a lover driven to the extremes of passion. Hermann raping the old lady introduces a much more desperate element to the work, tells us more about the mindset of Hermann, and actually fits with the warnings surrounding the revelation of the secret of the Legend of the Three Cards to one "impelled by burning passion". Similarly, Nemirova's bringing Liza's body back on the stage at the conclusion is a strong touch that brings home the impact of Hermann's choices and actions.
Marko Letonja's conducting of the work in Vienna was fine, but he was unable to ring any genuine emotion out of the cool calculation of the majority of Tchaikovsky's score. There are of course moments of great dramatic tension however, and those were built up well. The singing was strong from a good cast. Aleksandrs Antonenko can likewise be a little cool and steely but he grew greatly in intensity along with the role, never letting it tip over into full-blown insanity. After Hermann, it's the Countess who is the most charismatic personality here, and Marjana Lipovsek was just perfect here. The Countess is aloof and graceful, dismissive of fussy retainers, but she has to show fear and vulnerability, as well as regret for the past. Lipsivsek's performance could hardly be bettered. Barbara Haveman's Liza was also excellent, utterly commanding in Act III, and Elena Maximova supported her well as Polina.
The Wiener Staatsoper's Live at Home
in HD season continues in February with broadcasts of TOSCA, ANDREA CHÉNIER, DON CARLO and an EDITA GRUBEROVA gala concert.
Details of how to view these productions in the links below.
Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programme; Staatsoper Live at Home video