The plot of Alexander Pushkin’s short story “Pikovaya dama” is simple: after hearing of “The Three Cards,” an outrageous urban legend about a winning combo that promises fame and fortune, the villainous Hermann engages in the most emotionally destructive get-rich-quick scheme imaginable. He stalks an old cardsharp, spooks her to death, is visited by her ghost, learns the triplet, goes to the tavern, bets all his cash, calls for the Ace, draws the Queen of Spades, winds up in the nut house.
The Tchaikovsky brothers’ version, which was written in 1890 but set in the late eighteenth century (before Pushkin’s birth), isn’t so straightforward. It has lots of layers and twists–including a romance between Hermann, our avaricious protagonist, and Lisa, a neurotic noblewoman–that don’t really add up. It’s overwought to say the least, but this Queen of Spades is the best we’ve got—truly, a fantastic genre piece—and it is realized with startling conviction in the current revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s 1995 production at the Metropolitan Opera.
Needless to say, Tchaikovsky’s score is the most vivid character in the drama, and thirty-two-year-old(!) Andris Nelsons proved himself an ideal conductor for this style of operatic music. Never overeager or indulgent, he remained attentive to singers’ needs and sensitive to the orchestration. Strings rose to a fever pitch at the close of the first act, and lower woodwinds (a Tchaik specialty) shone brightly in the second, alternating between enchanting and deeply unsettling. Though not without his flaws, he is undeniably the young conductor of the moment.
Save for a not-always-complete picture frame device (cut it!), the production is perfectly designed and executed. Of particular note is Paul Pyant’s lighting design, which included visually arresting shadow effects on a mostly bare Met stage. The images that initiated the scene in the Countess’s room–grounded firmly in the world of the Pushkin story–were especially terrifying.
Tenor Vladimir Galouzine had the unenviable task of portraying Hermann—who, in this story, is torn between a genuine love for Lisa and a maniacal fixation on “The Three Cards,” two objectives that simply do not commingle (alas, Pushkin is rolling in his grave). The result is predictably one-dimensional. Stylistically, the Melancholy Madman is a tough archetype to pull off, one better suited to a five-o’clock-shadowed Ralph Fiennes; Galouzine looked more like Smeagol. More to the point, however, his singing was ardent, but uneven. Obviously his use of the Russian language was idiomatic and nuanced, but with that came a characteristic back-of-the-throat quality that constricted his sound, except for when his volume was blaring, at which point there was an unpleasant wobble. As Lisa, star soprano Karita Mattila returns in one of her best roles, which seems to have aged in several positive ways. Vocally the part isn’t all that demanding, so it’s a perfect vehicle to showcase her subtle, refined characterization and elegant stage business.
As it stands, the ballroom scene is half an hour of cutesy spectacle and opera-within-the-opera (not to mention ballet!) that barely reinforces the unconvincing relationship between Hermann and Lisa. Storywise it would be difficult to eliminate it (the exchange of the garden door key is crucial), but a severe trimming would benefit the opera as a whole. That said, even the savviest dramaturge wouldn’t dare touch Yeletsky’s aria—not after hearing Peter Mattei’s rendition. Simply put, it was Singing 101. In another supporting role, we were fortunate to have Dolora Zajick as the Countess, if only for the lugubrious Grétry insert.
Who knows, maybe Pushkin would’ve been better off in the hands of a Berg, Bartók or Schreker. Imagine it! A psychologically probing one-act opera with a ridiculously demanding, baritone-heavy vocal score, earsplitting cymbals, and one disorderly drinking chorus. It would be entertaining, but it wouldn’t displace Tchaikovsky. As a whole Moshinsky’s sumptuous production is not as engaging as this season’s earlier revival of Boris Godunov, a similar work also based on Pushkin, but it’s a tremendous opera and a worthwhile evening at the Met.
You’ve got two more chances to catch it: Monday, March 21st at 8 P.M., and Saturday, March 26th at 1 P.M. Approximate running time: 3.5 Hours.