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Obsession, Madness and Despair Sunny Side Up

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
11/21/2008 -  and 24, 29 November, and 3, 6, 10, 13 December
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky The Queen of Spades
Ben Heppner (Ghermann), Maria Guleghina (Lisa), Felicity Palmer (The Countess), Mark Delavan (Count Tomsky/Plutis), Vladimir Stoyanov (Prince Yeletsky), Alan Oke (Tchekalinsky), Paul Plishka (Sourin), Ekaterina Semenchuk (Pauline/Daphnis), Kathryn Day (Governess), Erin Morley (Masha, Lisa’s Maid), Bernard Fitch (Master of Ceremonies), Wendy Bryn Harmer (Chloe), Sheila Ricci (Catherine the Great), Mark Schowalter (Tchaplitsky), LeRoy Lehr (Naroumov), Lydia Brown (piano solo)
Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa (Conductor), Elijah Moshinsky (Production), Mark Thompson (Set and Costume Design), Paul Pyant (Lighting Design), Peter McClintock (Stage Director), John Meehan (Choreographer)

(© Ken Howard)

The Queen of Spades is a masterpiece that explores and exploits all that opera can do. It is a love story and a ghost story. It is filled with gorgeous music, lush orchestration, sublime choruses, memorable characters who are delineated with extraordinary psychological depth, and a plot that promises thrilling drama and an opportunity for eye-popping visual effects. Its return to the Met with a first class cast and the best opera orchestra on the American side of the Atlantic should have been a triumph. But it wasn’t. So what went wrong?

Simply put, Seiji Ozawa led the Met orchestra in a performance that gave full effect to only one dimension of the music -- producing a beautiful crystalline surface with an exquisitely nuanced musical palette. While the music was elegantly played, it was virtually devoid of emotional intensity – fear and horror of the descent into madness of Ghermann, the opera’s main character. That such a rendering omits the most salient aspect of the opera is clear both from comparisons with earlier performances of this production at the Met, (when it premiered in 1995 and returned in 1999), as well as the performances by the Kirov Opera that are available on DVD and CD. All of these were conducted by Valery Gergiev, whose proximity in space and time served to underline what was missing at the Met. (Gergiev’s string of brilliant Prokofiev performances with the Kirov Orchestra and Chorus at Avery Fisher Hall, just across the construction site that was and one day again will be Lincoln Center Plaza, had ended just four days before.)

That emotional intensity is central to Tchaikovsky’s conception and confirmed by his own words. In a letter to his brother, Modest (who wrote the libretto), he spoke of his profound emotional reaction to Ghermann’s tragic fate; he repeatedly dissolved in tears as he wrote the music and felt utter emotional exhaustion after having completed the opera.

Modest had begun the libretto at the request of another composer, Nikolay Klenovsky, who abandoned the project after Modest had written just three scenes. When Tchaikovsky heard about the libretto, he jumped at the chance to create an opera and decamped to Florence (as a quiet place to write), arriving there on January 30, 1890. Sleeping Beauty had premiered in St. Petersburg just two weeks before. The opera was scored by June and it premiered, also in St. Petersburg, on December 19th, to great acclaim. Shortly thereafter, Tchaikovsky set off for New York where he conducted at the opening on Carnegie Hall in April, 1891.

The basis for the opera was a short story by Pushkin. Both Tchaikovskys modified the story in tone, eliminating irony and substituting tragedy, and also in its plot and structure. Ghermann, an army engineer and rather a misfit, had long been interested in gambling but had not tried his luck. When we meet him, he has fallen hopelessly in love with a young girl, whose name he doesn’t know. In Act One, he and we learn that she is Lisa, granddaughter of the Countess and betrothed to Prince Yeletsky. Ghermann resolves to win her away from the Prince. Thus far, we are on the familiar romantic opera terrain of unrequited love. But there is more, much more. Long ago, the Countess, once a great beauty and herself a gambler, had sold her virtue for the secret of the tri karti (three cards). She shared this knowledge with two men, and it was prophesized that she would be murdered by a third, who would come as a lover to learn her secret. Ghermann does come as a lover, but to Lisa. Increasingly obsessed by the legend of the tri karti, he invades the Countess’s bedroom and tries to extract her secret. Terrified, she dies of fright.

When next we see Ghermann, he is in his barracks writing a letter to Lisa. Believing that her grandmother’s death was an accident, she has invited him to an assignation at the Winter Canal. Ghermann, now clearly mad, recalls how the Countess had winked at him from her casket. Then, in the midst of a furious storm, her ghost appears. She tells Ghermann the secret of the three cards – three, seven, ace. When he goes to meet Lisa, all he can think of is the tri karti. When the heartbroken Lisa commits suicide by jumping into the canal, Ghermann had already rushed off to the gambling house. There, he bets on three and then seven and wins. Prince Yeletsky accepts his challenge, and when Ghermann bets on the ace he loses. The card he turns up is the queen of spades. The Countess’s smiling ghost appears and Ghermann stabs himself to death as a chorus prays for his soul.

I recount the story at length to make one basic point: the centrality to this opera of darkness and emotional intensity, effects that Tchaikovsky brilliantly conveys through purely musical means including three central themes that dominate the opera – one each for Ghermann’s love, his obsession with gambling, and the tri karti. The last of these is relentlessly repeated in the orchestra to produce what should be unbearable levels of tension. In this performance, the themes were there but their dramatic power was not. Nor was the emotional tension.

An added problem that further vitiated the dramatic impact of the opera was the indisposition of Ben Heppner who sang the role of Ghermann, suffering from a cold. His voice repeatedly cracked and wobbled off pitch. His acting also failed to convey the requisite emotional intensity. He has sung this role and done it brilliantly but this was not his night. Maria Guleghina, as Lisa, sang with great passion and sensuality, and acted powerfully, particularly in the suicide scene. Possessed as she was with stronger emotions (and a stronger voice) than Ozawa’s conception and Heppner’s indisposition allowed, she would have been – and in fact has been -- more at home in a production with Gergiev in the pit. Mezzo soprano Ekaterina Semenchuck as Pauline sang with a lovely full lyrical voice. Her poignant and very Russian song foreshadowed Lisa’a unhappy fate. Vladimir Stovanov made for a princely Prince Yeletksy. He was in fine voice, with a beautiful tone, but here too one longed for a deeper level of emotion. Baritone Mark Delavan’s Count Tomasky sang with bonhomie and a rich sonorous voice. As the Countess, Felicity Palmer was suitably scary but also rather vulnerable as she reminisced about her lost beauty. Paul Plishka, an old hand at the Met, was an affecting and effective Sourin. The Met chorus was superb in all of its varying incarnations – the crowd of happy people enjoying a sunny day in the park; the elegant revelers in the ballroom scene; the mourners processing in silhouette at the Countess’s offstage funeral; and, finally, as the gamblers praying for Ghermann’s soul.

This production, by Elijah Moshinsky, debuted in 1995 with Gergiev in the pit. The false proscenium arch within which the opera took place was a brilliant device to focus attention and concentrate the action. The set was remarkably pared down with respect to both scenery and color. Its monochrome character emphasized any splashes of color, as in the opening scene with a bright blue sky on a beautiful spring-like day and, most especially, the ghost’s appearance, illuminated in bright red, as she crawled out of a hole in the stage. The ballroom scene was opulent and very beautiful as was the choreography.

One hopes that when next we see a production of The Queen of Spades in New York, it will do full justice to Tchaikovsky’s genius. Meanwhile, I commend to you the DVD and CD recordings by Valery Gergiev.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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