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Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Pique Dame, opus 68
Oleg Kulkin (Herman), Sergei Leiferkus (Count Tomsky), Albert Schaguidullin (Prince Yeletsky), Viacheslav Voynarovskiy (Chekalinksy), Maxim Mikhailov (Surin), Felix Livshitz (Chaplitsky), Alexey Kanunikov (Naromov), Nina Romanova (Countess), Karina A. Flores (Liza), Ekaterina Semenchuk (Pauline), Olga Schalaewa (Governess), Lilia Gretsova (Masha, Prilepa), The Gary Bertini Israeli Choir, Ronen Borchevsky (chorus master), Ankor Choir, Dafna Ben-Yohanan (director), The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)
Live recording: Smolarz Auditorium, Tel Aviv, Israel (November 11, 14 and 16, 2012) – 139’08
Helicon Classics # 02-9672 (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Booklet in English

Tchaikovsky’s axiom of pivotal tension is stacked to pinnacle strength in his 1890 opera, Pique Dame. The eminence of Vladimir Jurowski leads an engaged Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, a magnetic springboard for the predominately Russian-based cast. The end product substantially engulfs.

Contrasted to the lyrically-driven Eugene Onegin with its Tatyana investment, Tchaikovsky turns the tables obliquely to obsess about un homme tragique in an unsurprisingly autobiographical outreach about the composer himself. Splendidly, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s diluted Pushkin translation gyrates with gripping neurotic psychosis.

Underscoring the opera is Kiev Conservatory graduate Oleg Kulko as the doomed Herman. His tenor voice holds together well enough, yet he over-sensitizes and triggers vibrato wavering in upper notes and mounting crescendos which, ultimately, weaken the portrayal.

Diapason d’Or Prize-winning Sergei Leiferkus is in vibrantly good form as Count Tomsky, a gravelly-rich balladeer whose evocative “Odnazhdy v Versalye” builds an arresting case. Nina Romanova is also on par with a fine delivery as the Countess, suitably equipped with her well-graded and well-dispensed matronly mezzo voice.

Having frequented America’s opera houses including the supporting role of Olga in Los Angeles Opera’s 2011 production of Eugene Onegin, Ekaterina Semenchuk balances her voice alongside that of the powerful Lisa, sung by soprano Karina A. Flores: their duet, “Uzh vecher”, has benevolent, well-weighed buoyancy while the former’s smoky timbre adds a deeper equation inside the soulful aria “Da, vspomnila... Podrugi milie” set against piano accompaniment. The same vocal type as Mlle. Semenchuk, Olga Schalaewa’s voice covers as Lisa’s preceptress with silkier fronds.

Reminiscent of a mix between Lensky’s and Prince Gremin’s arias from Eugene Onegin is the musical spotlight of Prince Yeletsky as the notes are conditioned with suppleness by Albert Schagidullin. Dignified and deeply masculine in aura, his “Ya vas lyublyu” has amazingly extended phrasing and lovely voice control, making it one of the most ravishing moments in the opera.

All other supportive roles have convincing stature, and they substantively help the hallucinogenic plot move forward. The Mozartian opera-within-the-opera brightens the air with dignified lightness, headed up by soprano Lilia Gretsova as Prilepa [though it’s disappointing that Helicon Classics doesn’t credit those covering the roles of Chloë, Zlagotor, Pluto and Milozvor on the inside cover.]

Despite Dana Schlanger’s educational read, indexing of tracks within the synopsis would have facilitated the listen twofold. For a booklet that is only written in English, it seems a bit odd that the tracks’ titles are only printed in Russian but not bracketed with English translation. This picayune point would have aided in making this Helicon Classics presentation more satisfying.

This live recording of Pique Dame (in concert version) delivers a rich quality, but for those who gravitate toward a more hermetically-sealed rendition, they will find the occasional audience coughs and rumbles slightly unnerving. From a personal perspective, however, this doesn’t hinder its overall strength.

Christie Grimstad




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