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Friday, March 4, 2011

Metropolitan Opera Preview: The Queen of Spades

Act II of the Met's production of The Queen of Spades.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2008 The Metropolitan Opera
The best way to describe Tchaikovsky's most imaginative opera is like a Mozart opera stuck somewhere in The Twilight Zone. Based on a story by Pushkin, The Queen of Spades (also known by its French title Pique Dame) is the story of Ghermann, a gaming-addicted soldier determined to win the hand of Lisa (Karita Mattila) by winning at the gaming tables.


To that end, he becomes obsessed with learning the secret of the "three cards", a supposedly unbeatable gambling formula, from Lisa's aunt, The Countess. This is one of the great roles for an aging diva, and has been sung at the Met by such luminaries as Leonie Rysanek and Elisabeth Söderstrom. Here, the good lady is essayed by house favorite mezzo Dolora Zajick.

Elijah Moshinsky's production, one of the Met's better efforts from the Joseph Volpe era, sets the action in a huge, tilted picture frame, contrasting the courtly atmosphere of St. Petersburg with Ghermann's night-time excursions. It's a clever production of a weird opera, and one that has done much for the reputation of this work with New York audiences.

Recording Recommendations:
Considering that this is one of Tchaikovsky's best operas, Queen is somewhat under-represented on disc. Here's three worth investigating.

Orchestre National de France cond. Mstislav Rostropovich
Lisa: Galina Vishnevskaya
Ghermann: Peter Gougaloff
Countess: Regina Resnik
Yeletsky: Bernd Weikl
This was the standard Pique Dame for many years. Characterful, flavorful conducting from Rostropovich, the famous cellist who was in the middle of a long exile from the then-U.S.S.R. Gougaloff is a little strained as Ghermann. Regine Resnik is at her over-the-top best as the Countess.

Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus cond. Valery Gergiev
Lisa: Maria Guleghina
Ghermann: Gegham Gregorian
The Countess: Irina Arkhipova
Yeletsky: Vladimir Chernov
This recording came out in 1993 and it was instrumental in establishing the reputation of Valery Gergiev as a major conductor of Russian opera. A solid, completely idiomatic Russian cast, with Arkhipova, the grand dame of Soviet opera, as the Countess.

Boston Symphony Orchestra cond. Seiji Ozawa
Lisa: Mirella Freni
Ghermann: Vladimir Atalantov
The Countess: Maureen Forrester
Yeletsky: Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Mirella Freni may have been a little old for the role of the teenage Lisa. But her Russian is excellent (her husband was Bulgarian bass Nicolai Ghiaurov) and she is a great singing actress. The real attraction here is the young, velvet-voiced Hvorostovsky as Prince Yeletsky.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.