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S & H International Opera Review

Tchaikovsky: The Queen of Spades, Soloists, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski (cond), Metropolitan Opera House, New York City, February 24th 2004 (BH)

Vladimir Jurowski, Conductor
Elijah Moshinsky, Production
Mark Thompson, Set and Costume Designer
Paul Pyant, Lighting Designer
Peter McClintock, Stage Director
John Meehan, Choreographer

Tchekalinsky: Adam Klein
Sourin: Julien Robbins
Count Tomsky (Plutus): Frederick Burchinal
Ghermann: Plácido Domingo
Prince Yeletsky: Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Lisa: Adrianne Pieczonka
The Countess: Felicity Palmer
Pauline (Daphnis): Elena Zaremba
Governess: Sheila Nadler
Masha, Lisa’s maid: Rachelle Durkin
Master of Ceremonies: Bernard Fitch
Chlöe: Jennifer Welch-Babidge
Catherine the Great: Sheila Ricci
Naroumov: LeRoy Lehr

Piano solo: George Darden


It was almost worth the entire evening alone to see veteran Felicity Palmer clawing her way up through the floor of Plácido Domingo’s bedroom near the end of Elijah Moshinsky’s dark, moody 1995 production of The Queen of Spades, when the ghost of the Countess comes to deliver some crucial information to the tormented Ghermann. (Suffice to say that it concerns the identification of three playing cards that form the crux of the plot.) The scene is brief, but as she did all evening Palmer almost stole the show with some characterful singing and bold acting. I can still see her gazing at Ghermann with that haughty, suspicious glare, no doubt wondering why he is so inordinately interested in her.

Palmer was not the only sixtyish artist who could show a thing or two to singers half her age. If I recall correctly, the last time I saw Domingo at the Met was in 1999 in Verdi’s Otello, and while the memory of the handsome production has faded somewhat, the image of his keen, virile singing has not. It just amazes me that he still sounds so good – obviously not a young colt but still doing far more than just marking time. As far as vocal longevity is concerned, there are hardly any guarantees considering genetics, overeager singers trying things they shouldn’t, and demanding audiences who may or may not care about any of these issues. When he shot himself in the final scene, he fell to the ground with a swift, alarming and impressively physical thud -- so real that a friend expressed momentary concern. Fine acting, this is, and when coupled with his very intact vocal prowess – that’s the Domingo legend for you.

For the entire evening, Moshinsky, with set designer Mark Thompson, has envisioned a huge white alabaster frame squaring off the stage, as if the story were an Hermitage painting come to life. The opening curtain portrays a bleak, grayish blue Russian forest scene, that somberly parts to reveal a vast corridor stretching all the way to the back of the stage, with tall black columns on either side allowing diagonal shafts of light to interrupt the gloom. With the exception of a few brightly lit party scenes, the contents of the mysterious interiors are occasionally hard to discern, undoubtedly the effect intended by lighting designer Paul Pyant. This St. Petersburg is a black-and-white cage of desperation, always with the more colorful outside world beckoning just beyond, whether sky-blue glimpses of the city skyline, or a deep vermilion backdrop for the entrance of Catherine the Great.

Dmitri Hvorostovksy, projecting with warmth and ardor, drew enthusiastic applause for his melancholy Prince Yaletsky. As Lisa, Adrianne Pieczonka made a fresh, strong impression, singing the lovely Why am I weeping? with real passion. And as with everyone in the cast, she really acted her way through the somewhat farfetched story.

Some small gripes: some of the lengthy pauses during scenery changes seemed just too long, and when the curtain came up again, the scenic result didn’t always seem to justify the wait. And a slightly botched opportunity for drama: in the next-to-last scene, Moshinsky creates a startlingly realistic, Stygian river with the brownish night water gently rippling across the stage, one of the nicest special effects I’ve seen in any production at the Met. But then the distraught Lisa simply darts across it, rather than jumping in as one might expect, somewhat undercutting the impact of her suicide. (As far as I could discern from the plot, Lisa is unable to walk on water.)

Vladimir Jurowski, whom I last saw a few seasons ago direct a completely engrossing production of Prokofiev’s The Gambler, seemed quite at home here, although I am not familiar enough with Tchaikovsky’s score to compare this with other versions. But Jurowski did a fine job with the multitude of entertainments devised by the composer, such as the vintage "Pastorale" entertainment in the middle of the opera (cleanly choreographed by John Meehan), the sinister bassoon episodes announcing the Countess, and the quiet final chorus that leaves us on a wise and reverent plain, if a sober one.

Bruce Hodges

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