Magee, Emily


Pique DamePyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades)

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona 2010 | Michael Boder, Gilbert Deflo, Misha Didyk, Lado Ataneli, Ludovic Tézier, Ewa Podés, Emily Magee, Francisco Vas, Alberto Feria, Mikhail Vekua, Kurt Gysen | Opus Arte

Adapted from a short story by Pushkin, The Queen of Spades is something of a ghost story, but its roots lie firmly within the Russian tradition, and those aspects are emphasised brilliantly, with a few additional extensions to meet the demands of Grand Opera in Tchaikovsky’s version, first performed in 1890. The booklet notes in the Blu-ray release of this 2010 production from the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona also note the influence of Dostoevsky’s writing, and while that deeper psychology isn’t fully brought out in the performance of Misha Didyk, who plays Hermann with no greater subtlety than near foaming at the mouth, eye-rolling madness, the work itself certainly taps into a certain fatalistic Russian quality seen also in Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler (made into a fine opera by Prokofiev that complements Pique Dame well). It’s not so much that this relates to the rush of gambling or the acquisition of money, but on the extravagant romantic notion of its main characters only being able to live life to the fullest by throwing oneself into the hands of fate and risking everything – a circumstance that would, of course, lead to the early death of the author of The Queen of Spades himself in a duel.

That single-minded determination to win at any cost drives Hermann, who is unlucky in gambling and in love, discovering that the mysterious woman he has been observing and preparing to approach – even though she is clearly above his station – has just become engaged to Prince Yeletsky. Hermann however has heard the stories about Lisa’s aged mother, the Countess, once known as the Venus of Moscow, and now known as the Queen of Spades. Legend has it that she has learned the secret desired by gambler of three winning cards. She has shared this secret with two others and cannot reveal it to a third – but Hermann becomes obsessed with the myth and is determined to discover the mystery of the three cards. The interest of this intense young officer in her hasn’t gone unnoticed by Lisa however, so even though surprised by his appearance on her balcony one night, she resolves to help him – with inevitably tragic consequences for all involved.

Tchaikovsky’s music is designed to impress, the period of Catherine the Great (1762-96) and the romantic Russian nature of the piece matched by a tone of splendour, stateliness and order as well as the hint of underlying madness that struggles beneath the surface of the lives of these characters. The full range of the situation and the emotions of the characters is expressed in beautiful duets, in the chorus of the St Petersburg society, and in the tormented arias of Hermann and his obsessive refrain about the mystery of the three cards – but, playing to the conventions of Grand Opera, there is room for Tchaikovsky to introduce additional colour and take those sentiments into the medium of a Mozartian pastorale in Act II. There’s a certain coldness and calculation involved in the composition, as I often find with Tchaikovsky, but it’s well suited to the character of the work here.

The staging for the Liceu by Gilbert Deflo, at least superficially matches the splendour and opulence of the work, the classicism of the storyline and the tone of Tchaikovsky’s work, but it doesn’t really manage to delve into the deeper themes raised in the opera. Where it does try to make the effort, it’s rather unimaginative and awkward, using black screens to block off parts of the backgrounds or the whole of it, isolating Hermann in his madness from the rest of society (while also serving to allow quick changes to be made to the set behind the screens). There’s a similar lack of imagination in the characterisation of Hermann on the part of Misha Didyk, who wanders in a daze across the set with limited acting ability, a wide-eyed madman consumed with his own inner torment and obsessions. Didyk’s steely tenor doesn’t allow for any subtler range of expression in his singing either, hard and constricted, spitting out the harsh Russian consonants with admirable force and expressiveness, but it’s limited in terms of musicality and nuance.

If one isn’t looking for anything deeper out of the operas themes, this serves reasonably well however, and it’s a strong enough performance on that level alone. It certainly lends an edge to his encounter with Countess (sung with an equally dramatic edge by Ewa Podés) that leads to her death as well as in his reencounter with her ghost on the bridge (which is hauntingly staged using simple smoke and lighting effects), and it’s also effective in the magnificent duet scene with Lisa – a strong performance also from Emily Magee – that in turn leads to her doom (which could have been better staged). There’s a lot to like about the singing, the performances (the orchestra, conducted by Michael Boder deliver a fine account of the score), and a fairly traditional staging that at least has a coherence and consistency with the production, but a little more subtlety in the singing and imagination in the staging along the lines of Dmitri Tcherniakov’s direction of Prokofiev’s The Gambler, could have brought much more out of this particular opera.

The Blu-ray from Opus Arte looks and sounds fine, with a clear, sharp and colourful transfer, and good sound mixes in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. There are no extra features on the disc other than a Cast Gallery, but a brief introduction to the work and a synopsis is provided in the enclosed booklet.

AriadneRichard Strauss - Ariadne auf Naxos

Opernhaus Zürich, 2006 | Christoph von Dohnányi, Claus Guth, Alexander Pereira, Michael Volle, Michelle Breedt, Roberto Saccà, Guy de Mey, Elena Moşuc, Emily Magee, Gabriel Bermúdez | TDK

Claus Guth’s opera productions are known for being psychologically-based – delving into an old, familiar work – as in his productions of the Mozart/Da Ponte operas, or in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride – and seeing whether a more modern outlook and a wider consideration of the composer’s intentions can’t illuminate some aspects of the characters’ behaviour. As such, it would seem that Guth has had all his work done for him when it comes to this 2006 production for the Opernhaus Zürich of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, an opera about the composing of an opera that is so self-reflexive that it surely doesn’t need any further deconstruction.

One wonders whether Strauss was thinking in part about his own opera Der Rosenkavalier, when he came to write Ariadne auf Naxos, an opera about an opera that mixes opera seria with opera buffa, that is played out in the most farcical, old fashioned and self-absorbed manner, while at the same time making a comment on serious deeper underlying aspects that the farce helps illuminate. Der Rosenkavalier is even self-reflexive itself on the nature of opera composition, on the history of opera, on the ability of opera to mix singing, drama and music, to be able to mix serious elements and low-brow comedy and through this unusual combination of elements be able to reach deeper truths about life, about love, about time and our place in it all.

It’s already been done in Der Rosenkavalier, so is there anything else that can be brought out of the idea by making the idea the entire purpose of Ariadne auf Naxos? Well, in the very premise – a wealthy patron decides to combine two operas that he has commissioned, one a commedia dell’arte farce, the other a serious treatment of a classical subject, so that both will be finished in time to entertain his guests with a fireworks display at 9 o’clock – there’s certainly a satire on the commerce of opera. Opera can aspire to high art, but it also needs to entertain and the two need not be mutually exclusive. There’s also a great deal of satire involved at the expense of the precious composer who cannot bear to see others destroy all his work and serious intentions, who also has to deal with the conflicting demands of his leading singers and their egos.

If the prologue is almost stultifyingly predictable in its high-brow cleverness and in the so-called comedy of this set-up – played out largely unmusically in near-recitative parlando – the proof of the concept is in the “opera” itself. Even using commedia dell’arte standard character type and classical archetypes, the manner in which they collide with each other brings out underlying truths about human nature in each of them, aided and assisted by the power of music, “the holiest of arts”. Thus the humble Zerbinetta, seemingly at ease and taking pleasure in the nature of love affairs between men and women, is nonetheless able to understand the deep suffering that Ariadne, abandoned on Naxos by Theseus, is undergoing, but although “the grief of illustrious and noble persons mustn’t be measured by the standards of mere mortals”, Zerbinetta asks, “But are we not both women?”, and she herself has been abandoned to countless desert islands. When Bacchus arrives then, himself in torment, Ariadne recognises that her suffering hasn’t been in vain, but rather leaves her born anew, with a new god to worship – not man as a god, but the love that springs up in this new ground that lies between them – and Zerbinetta smiles in silent recognition.

In some ways, the truth of Ariadne auf Naxos and the collision between life and art is borne out in the actual difficulties of its composition and the struggle between Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal to strike a balance between communicating ideas through the words and expressing it in the music – an idea developed further in Capriccio – making the opera entertaining and having something important to say, while also being comprehensible. Out of the dialectic collision in Ariadne auf Naxos (and Der Rosenkavalier) of the German opera influences of Mozart’s buffa tragic-comedies and Wagner’s lyrical romanticism, Strauss and von Hofmannsthal hope to demonstrate their theory and move towards a more modern form of opera. It may not be considered as important or as revolutionary as Wagner’s theories (the musical and thematic concerns of Tristan and Isolde and Parsifal are very evident in Ariadne auf Naxos), or Gluck’s before him, and the balance between theory and practice may not be entirely satisfactory, but it would lead the way to further developments in Strauss’s career and have an undeniable impact on the modern form of opera as we know it today.

Ariadne

That the opera itself is set in the present, or in a relatively modern context as opposed to its antiquity or commedia dell’arte setting, isn’t unexpected from Claus Guth – but what is strange is that at least up until the close of the double curtains, there is never any sense of it being an opera – a compromised opera – within an opera. The meta-level of the Prologue is kept almost completely separate from the main opera (apart of course from the flawed human actors who are metamorphosed through the magic of opera into exquisite beings) and it is played completely straight, notwithstanding the fact that the setting – not an island, but a detailed representation of the famous Kronenhalle restaurant in Zurich, where Ariadne is lamenting her woes over a bottle of wine – is much too elaborate to be a small production for assembled guests at a dinner party.

Going to such detail and with such realism, one has to conclude that Guth clearly wants to make the opera meaningful to a Swiss audience, drawing lines between the aristocracy and the lower classes in the split between the serious and the comedy, between the mythological characters and the opera buffa characters, and is trying to find something relevant to the operas themes in this opera-class conflict. Perhaps a Swiss audience is able to derive some deeper meaning from this than myself, but it’s certainly a valid aim to present a 21st century take on an opera that is itself a 20th century take on older styles of opera composition, continually refreshing it and exploring the contrasts for some new resonance.

Much as I find some aspects of Ariadne unsatisfying as an opera – mostly with it trying just too hard to be clever and witty – it does at least have this to always making it interesting and always capable of revealing new ideas. If that fails – and I’m not sure it works terribly well in this case, only adding to the self-referential complexity – there is at least always the most beautiful music and singing in the monologues of Ariadne and Zerbinetta, Strauss as ever writing beautifully for women’s voices, and in particular putting some of the most challenging singing in the entire opera repertoire into the role of Zerbinetta. The singing in this production is superb – Elena Moşuc a vibrant Zerbinetta, Emily Magee a strong, elegant Ariadne, Roberto Saccà a beautifully lyrical tenor Bacchus – but then in this opera, it really can’t be anything else.

TDK’s Blu-ray of the production is fine, the transfer showing the detail in the well-lit sets. Audio options are LPCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 7.1, the surround track having the advantage of the wider range and sounding marvellous. Other than a couple of Trailers, there are no extra features, interviews or looks behind-the-scenes.