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Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades), Opera in 3 Acts after Pushkin
Brandon Jovanovich (Hermann), Evgenia Muraveva (Lisa), Vladislav Sulimsky (Count Tomsky/Plutus), Igor Golovatenko (Prince Yeletsky), Hanna Schwarz (Countess)
Wiener Staatsopernchor
Wiener Philharmoniker/Mariss Jansons
Director: Hans Neuenfels, Set designer: Christian Schmidt, Costume designer: Reinhard von der Thannen, Lighting: Stefan Bolliger.
rec. live, August 2018, Salzburg Festival, Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, Austria
DVD Picture: NTSC, 16:9. Sound Format: BD: PCM Stereo, DTS-HD MA 5.1
Region: All. Subtitles: Russian (original language), English, German, French, Korean, Japanese. Booklet: English, German, French
UNITEL EDITIONS 801408 DVD [183 mins]

The Queen of Spades is filled with members of St Petersburg high society with not enough to do. The various “officers” have little obvious connection to soldiering, so drink and gamble their time away, the “superfluous men” of 19th-century Russian social critique. Lovely young Lisa and her women friends fill their days with folk songs and dances, and are admonished for performing la russe (like Russian peasants). A strange old Countess with the secret to a lucrative three-card trick recalls her young days in Versailles, singing for Madame Pompadour. Hermann, our officer hero, loves Lisa but worries his officer buddies with his moody distraction. If he can just learn that three-card sequence, he can get rich and the girl. Yoked together in this common fate, the Countess, Lisa and Hermann will die, the first from terror and the others by their own hand. In Pushkin’s story, Hermann simply goes mad and Lisa makes a successful marriage, but in Tchaikovsky’s opera, this piece is death-haunted.

This new production by Hans Neuenfels for the 2018 Salzburg Festival reflects the morbidity of the work in a number of ways. It has a very dark setting by Christian Schmidt, a largely empty stage with a black background. The avoidance of any clutter means that the tale of the Countess and the card secret is told by Count Tomsky to an audience of three who sit on the stage floor. There is thus also little sense of the switch from outdoors (where two scenes are set) to the various interior spaces the libretto mainly indicates. The children’s chorus of the opening scene is sung by youngsters clad in pale green (wigs as well) who are delivered to the stage in curious cages. But for the most part the chorus is clad in very sombre garb, with long flowing black cloaks for the women who hear Polina’s song in Act 1 scene 2. Even the crowd who are in swimwear to greet the sunny day have chosen black swimming costumes, while the masked ball has only black masks and headgear (with black plumes for the women), and the Countess permits no other colour for her entourage. Lisa is allowed black and white, the Countess has pale green, but Hermann wears his scarlet soldier’s uniform throughout, often with the tunic undone revealing his hirsute torso.

The Countess’ bedroom resembles one in a hospital, and is thus the only scene where white dominates. The libretto makes much of light turning to dark, so this symbolism makes dramatic sense. A proscenium arch and low stage appear for the pastoral interlude in Act scene 1, and the canal side of Act 3 scene 2 is suggested by the dark background slightly illumined by a back projection of a street exterior. Back projection is also eerily used to depict the countess’ portrait in her bedroom, an oval surround with her mobile face filmed in close-up. The gambling table could almost serve for snooker, being large, green and rectangular. When Hermann shoots himself and falls upon it, he descends into it as the last bars play and it becomes his tomb – he ends enclosed by his obsession. This is a neat reference to Pushkin’s curt ending, where he lives on but enclosed in an asylum, endlessly rapidly muttering the fateful card sequence “three, seven, ace”.

Neuenfels directs very effectively, keeping the chorus moving and involved, and drawing some compelling performances from a strong cast. The American tenor Brandon Jovanovich is excellent in a role where, despite appearing in all seven scenes, he does not really change, for Hermann begins as an archetypal doomed Romantic hero and wanders through the opera pursuing that destiny. He looks good in the role, and has the right type of tenor, slightly baritonal in timbre with an upper range whose occasional strenuousness suits this histrionically demanding part. Evgenia Muraveva’s glinting soprano suits the role of Lisa, who has her own sort of obsessiveness, superbly revealed in her stirring account of Lisa’s final despairing aria just before her canal side encounter with her crazed beloved. The veteran Hanna Schwarz is perfect for the Countess, recalling her former greatness – as obsessed with the past as Hermann and Lisa are with an imagined future.

There are fine comprimarii, led by Vladislav Sulimsky as Tomsky and Oksana Volkova as Polina, but vocal honours were snatched – as they usually are in this work - by Igor Golovatenko’s fine account of Yeletsky’s lovely romance “Ya vas lyublyu”, the one number to attract applause from the Salzburg audience. The VPO and its very large chorus are splendid, and Mariss Jansons clearly loves every bar of the score, which he paces with a real feeling for the drama, supporting his singers with unerring judgement of tempo and balance. The filming serves the piece unobtrusively, and the picture and sound are both also very good. The opera is spread across two DVDs, with Act 1 on the first disc and Acts 2 and 3 on the second. There are no extras, but that is hardly a reason to withhold a warm welcome for this impressive production.

Roy Westbrook

Previous review (Blu-ray): Dave Billinge



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