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Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Pique Dame, (Queen of Spades) - opera in three Acts.
Extracts from Pushkin’s poem read by Alla Demidova with brief interspersed scenes from the opera
The Countess, Irina Arkhipova (m. sop); Yeletsky, Dmitri Hvorostovsky (bar); Surin, Alexander Vedernikov (bass); Hermann, Vitaly Tarashchenko (ten); Count Tomsky, Grigory Gritsuk (bar); Lisa, Natalia Datsko (sop); Pauline, Nina Romanova (cont);
Vesna Children’s Choir
The Yurlov State Academic Russian Choir
Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio/Vladimir Fedoseyev
The opera; recorded live in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory on December 25th 1989.
The readings, and extracts, also recorded live at the ‘Pushkin Concert’ celebrating the poet’s 200th birthday on May 24th 1999 also from the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory
RELIEF CR 991067 [3CDs: 67.46+66.01+71.28]

Outside Russia, and certainly in the UK, productions of operas by Tchaikovsky are often limited to the lyrical Eugene Onegin, and, by some distance, the more dramatic Pique Dame - his penultimate work in this genre. Both works are based on poems by Pushkin. The present set is unique in presenting read extracts from the poem interspersed by arias from the opera.

Pique Dame tells the story of the fated love of a young officer, Hermann, for Lisa, grand-daughter of the Countess, a renowned gambler, and who is believed to hold the secret of the three cards. Lisa is betrothed to Prince Yeletsky. Hermann believes he lacks the money to displace Yeletsky and that the only way to obtain it is by winning at cards. To succeed he needs the Countess’s secret. She dies of shock as he seeks it from her. However, she returns as a ghost and reveals the satanically influenced secret to him as ‘three seven and ace’. She also encourages him to marry Lisa. Hermann gambles all against Yeletsky, but the third card is the Queen of Spades and the Countess’s apparition appears to him again as he stabs himself. The devilish pact is fulfilled.

On record Pique Dame has had a mixed history, with theoretically ideal casts being marred by recording quality or the odd flawed soloist. That changed with Gergiev’s 1992 recording, where the conductor’s dynamism and feel for the idiom is allied with an excellent team of soloists. It immediately became a clear first choice (Philips). That issue shared with the present set the veteran Irina Arkhipova, as the Countess. Hers is a portrayal that reeks of experience. Her full tone, excellent diction and phrasing are allied to well held legato. This she can mobilise at very slow speed, in her great aria (CD2 Tr.5), and where she slips imperceptibly from Russian into French. Natalia Datsko takes the role of her grand-daughter, Lisa. Datsko’s full-toned voice is more dramatic than lyric and is even throughout its wide range. Her palette of vocal colour is well used in expressing Lisa’s many emotions (CD2 tr.9). A particular pleasure is her duet with the mellifluous-toned mezzo of Nina Romanova as Pauline (CD1 trs.8-9).

Lisa’s betrothed, Yeletsky, is portrayed by Dmitri Hvorostovsky who also sang the part in Ozawa’s flawed recording for RCA. His singing is outstandingly expressive, secure throughout the range, and allied to full fresh even tone. It is a formidable portrayal. Good as Chernov is for Gergiev, Hvorostovsky is better. His rendition of Yeletsky’s Act 2 aria, in which he states his love for Lisa (CD2 tr.1), is justifiably treated to enthusiastic applause. Hvorostovsky is well matched for vocal strength by the Hermann of Vitaly Tarashchenko. His typical Slavic tenor has baritonal overtones and a slightly husky quality. However it is a true tenor voice with plenty of heft for the dramatic outbursts. He is, however, able to lighten his tone to lyric tenderness as he pours out his love to Lisa (CD1 tr.11). Equally well thought and expressed are his use of phrasing and tone as he meets the Countess (CD2 tr.6) and later as he reads Lisa’s forgiveness.

The minor solo parts are all sung convincingly and with good tone; not a Slavic wobble within sight or, more relevant, hearing. Most impressive too is the vibrant chorus, even more so the orchestral playing under Vladimir Fedoseyev, their long time conductor. He draws fine playing and conveys the episodic drama superbly. Although denoted ADD the recording is full and clear with an excellent balance. The occasional instances of applause, all well deserved, are not unduly extensive or intrusive.

The ‘bonus’ of the reading of extracts from Pushkin’s poem, interspersed with arias from the opera, will mainly be of interest to Russian speakers and those spotting names for the next generation of singers from Russia. The booklet has the text of the opera in Cyrillic and ‘Roman’ form with a translation in English. The artist profiles are given in Russian and English but are shy on dates of birth. There are plenty of spelling errors in the English translation. The track listings would have benefited from English translation and reference to a numbered page in the libretto, the pages of which are not numbered.

Caught with the tension of a live performance, but without the disadvantage of stage movement, this well sung and played idiomatic performance is a worthy addition to the catalogue. It also has the benefit of Hvorostovsky’s Yeletsky, caught at the peak of form a few months after he won the accolade of ‘Cardiff Singer of the World’. It can stand alongside, or compete with, Gergiev’s well cast and conducted studio recording.

Robert J Farr

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