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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades)
Hermann – Misha Didyk (tenor); Liza – Svetlana Aksenova (soprano); Prince Yeletsky – Vladimir Stoyanov (baritone); Count Tomsky/Zlatogor – Alexey Markov (baritone); The Countess – Larissa Diadkova (mezzo)
Chorus of The Dutch National Opera, Nieuw Amsterdams Kinderkoor
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, De Nationale Opera, Amsterdam, 9 June & 3 July, 2016
Stage Director: Stephan Herheim
Set & Costumes: Philipp Fürhofer
Lighting: Bernd Purkrabek
Dramaturgy: Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach
Sound format, PCM Stereo DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0. Picture format 16.9. 1080i
Booklet Notes in English, German and French. Subtitles in Russian (original language), English, German, French, Korean and Japanese.
C MAJOR Blu-ray 744004 [180 mins]

We live in an extremely dichotomous time in the music world. On one hand, you have those devoted to historical instrument practices and adherence to following the composer's intentions to the letter, and on the other there are stage directors who commonly cut and reorder numbers in ballet productions and their counterparts in opera who alter the libretto, sometimes radically so. Wagner's operas in particular have been the target of those seeking some new, often non-Wagnerian interpretation. Ah, yes, but he was Wagner, the anti-Semitic bigot and scoundrel. He's not deserving, some argue, of having his dubious ideas presented even if, despite his imperfections, he managed to turn out many masterpieces. But other composers are suffering the same kind of disfiguring changes in their operas' stories too. What did they do to bring this on themselves?

Having pointed all this out, I must concede that some stage directors arguably offer something quite worthwhile with their “interpretations”. Yes, but then some of them clearly cross the line too. With this production of Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame, the acclaimed stage director Stefan Herheim gives the story a treatment that might just cause some of Tchaikovsky's admirers to squirm in their seats or maybe cause the composer to roll over in his tomb. Not that it is a bad take on the story: indeed, this production has generally received high praise from critics across the globe, and the consensus is hard to challenge, as the story develops logically and imaginatively, but with the composer himself becoming a character and his homosexuality a central issue. Some might say it's a story for today: we are tolerant of alternate lifestyles now and we accept so much that previous generations couldn't because of their restrictive sense of morality. Okay, but so what? Should Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame, with the libretto fashioned by the composer's brother Modest (who, incidentally, was also gay) based on a story of the same name by Alexander Pushkin, be altered to serve new, well intentioned and even brilliantly imagined ideas—ideas that inject profound changes in the story?

Ultimately you'll have to decide. I have learned to rein in my propensity to resist such tampering and adapt to the idea that a stage director can indeed fashion a new and sometimes even radical take on a work and still achieve success. If you can do likewise, you may find this a welcome effort all around. Even if you still have issues with this kind of production, the musical side of things here is quite excellent. The conducting of Mariss Jansons and performances by both the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the singers are outstanding. The chorus sings splendidly too, while everything else, from the presentation of the story itself to the sets, costuming (which is faithful to the period), lighting and technical aspects on this Blu-ray disc including sound reproduction, camera work and picture clarity, are all first rate. Further, Herheim doesn't actually ignore the original story line: all the characters and their actions remain mostly intact, but the big difference here, of course, is the addition of Tchaikovsky the gay, tortured composer.

In a typical or traditional version of this opera, the story, to give a very capsulized version, goes like this: Hermann loves Liza, the fiancée of Yeletsky. But Hermann, a gambling addict, is also intent on gaining the secret to the gambling success of Liza's grandmother, a countess who is nicknamed the Pique Dame (Queen of Spades). In trying to attain her secret (a sequence of three cards) he accidentally kills the Countess and subsequently drives Liza to suicide. Believing he has been given the secret for winning by the vengeance-minded ghost of the Countess, Hermann gambles and wins on the first two cards but loses on the third (to Yeletsky!), squandering all his money. Hermann then commits suicide.

Now, while this same plot takes place in Herheim's version, more or less, there are a few differences. For example, in accordance with the gay aspects of the composer's life, in the opening scene Tchaikovsky (you immediately can't mistake him for anyone else when you see his beard and attire) rises from his knees having just finished a sexual encounter with the seated Hermann. The Tchaikovsky character also portrays Yeletsky and that presents a few problems. For example, when Yeletsky declares his love for Liza (Ya vas lyublyu), it becomes an uneasy and conflicted moment because he also harbors strong feelings for Hermann. One must note too that Tchaikovsky often sits at the piano in many scenes and plays and composes—and agonizes.

There are many moments of symbolism in the opera, a few fairly significant if obvious ones, especially since some are mentioned in a note in the album booklet. After Tchaikovsky's sexual encounter with Hermann in the opening scene, for instance, you hear a music box playing a snippet from Mozart's The Magic Flute: Papageno's Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen. Tchaikovsky loved Mozart and so this indicates his happiness. A male chorus soon appears on stage and each member is a replica of Tchaikovsky in look and attire. Each carries a glass of water, representing the tainted drink that caused the composer's death from cholera just three years after the appearance of this opera (in the Third Act Chorus of Friends, they are also shown drinking from the glasses.) There are other examples, but what is of greater significance is that some viewers will see the opera as more about the tragedy of Tchaikovsky and Yeletsky than of Hermann and Liza. But it appears that is precisely what Herheim intended. One thing you can't deny: Herheim does pack the opera with lots of thought-provoking ideas from beginning to end.

As suggested above the performances are just fine. Misha Didyk is very convincing in the role of Hermann, though he is perhaps not quite as energetic at times as when he portrayed a very similar character, the gambling-obsessed Alexei in Prokofiev's The Gambler, in 2008 for Daniel Barenboim. Svetlana Aksenova is consistently excellent as Liza. Try her in the aria (Where do these tears come from) from Act I to sample both her vocal and dramatic skills. Alexei Markov is impressive as Tomsky: try his subtly nuanced and profoundly ominous Once at Versailles, from Act I. Larissa Diadkova is equally effective as the Countess.

There aren't many video recordings of this opera, and this is the newest by far. Three others are all ageing efforts now, and one of them is severely cut. This new recording of Pique Dame, possibly the composer's greatest opera (but we can't forget Evgeny Onegin), might just be the finest production currently on video, depending on your point of view of course. Highly recommended then, despite reservations.

Robert Cummings

Previous review: Dave Billinge

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