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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades), Opera in three acts and seven pictures (1890)
Misha Didyk, Hermann; Alexey Markov, Count Tomsky/Zlator; Vladimir Stoyanov, Prince Yeletsky; Andrei Popov, Chekalinsky; Andrii Goniukov, Surin; Mikhail Makarov, Chaplitsky; Anatoli Sivko, Narumov; Larissa Diadkova, The Countess; Svetlana Aksenova, Liza; Anna Goryachova, Polina; Morschi Franz, Master of Ceremonies; Olga Savova, Governess; Maria Fiselier, Masha; Pelageya Kurennaya, Prilepa; Christiaan Kuyvenhoven, Pianist/actor
Chorus of Dutch National Opera, Nieuw Amsterdams Kinderkoor
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, De Nationale Opera, Amsterdam, 9 June & 3 July 2016
Sound Format PCM Stereo, DTS HD MA 5.0 Surround; Picture Format 16:9, 1080i; Regions A, B, C: Subtitles: Russian, English, French, German, Korean, Japanese
Reviewed in surround
C MAJOR 744004 Blu-ray [181.00]

It would be hard to assemble a better cast of soloists, a better pair of choruses and a better orchestra than we have here. The musical result is quite outstanding and the tumult in the Dutch National Opera theatre that greets Mariss Jansons at the end shows how successful he was in conveying the power and passion of Tchaikovsky's penultimate opera. Of course it was not down only to him. The cast of superb Russian soloists, especially the remarkable Svetlana Aksenova as Liza, Misha Didyk as Hermann and Alexey Markov as Tomsky, add immeasurably to the success of this production. Selecting those three is certainly not to suggest that the remaining soloists are any less fine. All this musical excellence is reproduced with great clarity of both sound and pictures. Cameras and microphones are always in the right place whether we are viewing close ups or a wider panorama. This production utilises the big spaces of Amsterdam's fine new opera house, even parts of the auditorium during Act 2, and one can only hope that when this joint production reaches London's Royal Opera House it will work as well.

The libretto by Tchaikovsky's brother Modest is quite heavily adapted from a Pushkin short story. By a mixture of judicious selection of scenes and the addition of some new ones Modest gave the composer opportunities galore for grand choruses, a pastoral divertissement, dancing and of course lots of Tchaikovskian, fate-driven gloom. As in all three of the composers final symphonies there is frequent juxtaposition of emotional extremes but here, as in only the 6th Symphony, culminating in tragedy. A glance at the events of the composer's life at this time show a man preoccupied with his own demons whilst also achieving artistic success. It is his demons that can be seen in the libretto of Pique Dame, often quite explicitly, but even more often depending on how you view the events of these three acts and seven scenes. It is that availability of a different viewpoint that makes this production either one to love, or to hate, or a mixture of the two.

There is a short essay in the booklet which newcomers to this disc would do well to read before watching. This single sentence will suffice for an alert. "To mark the 50th anniversary of the Dutch National Opera in 2016, director Stefan Herheim staged the Russian opera on love and gambling addiction as the highlight of the jubilee season, and created a remarkable new production which makes the composer himself the centre of attention." And how! I might be tempted to add! Tchaikovsky is on stage and involved throughout, composing music as it is being sung, morphing back and forth between himself and the character of Prince Yeletsky, conducting the chorus, playing an on-stage piano, changing the action in ways most opera goers will never have considered. There is a large male chorus of Tchaikovsky look-alikes, as well as at least two people acting his role, one of whom sings and one who dances. One of the key portraits on the wall of the main set is of Nadezhda von Meck, the composer's benefactor, who gets mixed up with the Countess in the story, also a benefactor. I could go on, but I will end by mentioning the caged bird which performs Mozart once or twice, and, oh yes, a lot of glasses of polluted water being carried around and drunk. What could that have meant I wonder?

Whether one views this as an enlightening revision of the plot or a total barrier to enjoyment, will depend on your knowledge of Tchaikovsky's life story and your attitude to regie-direktor production. It is all performed with energy and belief by this starry cast and looks wonderful, so if you can enjoy this sort of thing, you should definitely buy this Blu-ray because it contains a musico-dramatic experience you will not quickly forget. Those more faint-hearted might want to turn off the screen and just listen, but then you will lose the subtitles and the sight of a superb cast going about their business. I was nervous but stuck with it despite unease!

Dave Billinge



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