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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Pique Dame - The Queen of Spades : Opera in three acts and seven pictures (1890)
Brandon Jovanovich, Hermann; Vladislav Sulimsky, Count Tomsky/Plutus; Igor Golovatenko, Prince Yeletsky; Alexander Kravets, Chekalinsky; Stanislav Trofimov, Surin; Pavel Petrov, Chaplitsky; Gleb Peryazev, Narumov; Hanna Schwarz, The Countess; Evgenia Muraveva, Liza; Oksana Volkova, Polina/Daphnis; Oleg Zalytskiy, Master of Ceremonies; Margarita Nekrasova, Governess; Vasilisa Berzhanskaya, Masha; Yulia Suleimanova, Chloe/Prilepa
Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Salzburger Festspiele und Theater Kinderchor, Vienna Philharmonic/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, 2018 Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg Festival, Austria
Sound Format PCM Stereo, DTS HD MA 5.1 Surround; Picture Format 16:9, 1080i; Regions A, B, C: Subtitles English, French, German, Korean, Japanese
Reviewed in surround
UNITEL EDITIONS 801504 Blu-ray [183 mins]

Around March 2018, a little over a year ago, I remarked of a Blu-ray disc of Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame - The Queen of Spades, "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." Now, to my surprise and partial delight, we have Jansons once again proving what a superb musical director of this work he is. This time he replaces Dutch forces with Viennese ones, and a different cast of equally superb soloists. The Vienna Philharmonic makes a fine replacement for the Royal Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the VPO being no better but equally excellent. Only some of the cast this time are Russian. Evgenia Muraveva as Liza is Russian, Brandon Jovanovich as Hermann is American and Vladislav Sulimsky as Tomsky is actually from Belarus. Hanna Schwarz, who sings the Countess, is German. As before the production is reproduced with great clarity of both sound and pictures. And instead of Amsterdam this production utilises the big spaces of the Grosses Festspielhaus in Salzburg.

As noted in the previous review 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 composer's 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. The Amsterdam production chose to emphasize the composer's preoccupations. This Salzburg production takes a very different course, sharing with Amsterdam only a singularly disregard for what the composer and his brother asked for in the libretto. Hans Neuenfels is famous, one might say infamous, for his opera productions which have attracted much opprobrium and indeed even the attention of the police on at least one occasion. He, like all members of the regie-directorate, believes he can and indeed should override the wishes of the creators and impose a wholly individual interpretation on the audience. Opera is supposedly losing this audience world-wide and one cannot help but wonder if the finger should not be pointed at just such individuals as the prime cause. I have myself almost given up attendance at opera partly because the risk of being enraged is now so high. However, with my critics hat on I gritted my teeth and tried my hardest to 'get' this production. The entry of cages full of children in Act One; the wet nurses whose overfull and pendulous swimming-bladder breasts made their point only too clearly; Hermann's persistent exposure of his hairy chest to the ladies he tries to impress (surely guaranteed more to frighten or disgust); a Polina who obviously escaped from the cast of Cabaret (why oh why was she wearing hot-pants?); a chorus who worked so hard to do precisely the opposite gestures to those in their libretto (clapping hands is very hard when your hands are behind your back only at exactly that moment); I tried to ignore the fact that the ladies of the chorus dressed in an all-black version of the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland; and why were the chorus often decked out with swimming hats and face masks, not to mention strutting up and down like automatons; what was the purpose of the grotesque chorus of praise to Empress Catherine who appears as a giant skeleton in a wire framed dress? It went on, and on. And on. I think I can confidently say I did not get it at all. Had I paid Salzburg prices to watch this farrago I would have been very angry. One point in its favour, it was not as crazy as the Dutch production with its stage full of Tchaikovsky clones.

Once again, quoting myself, it is all performed with energy and belief by this excellent cast. 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! I have to admire Mariss Jansons who has been through this twice in quick succession. No wonder he keeps taking time off. Given a choice I would recommend the Dutch production because it looks better, this one is very dull and black. But it is a very fine musical performance of a great score.

Dave Billinge

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