Boder, Michael


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.

MedeaAribert Reimann - Medea

Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna, 2010 | Michael Boder, Marco Arturo Marelli, Marlis Petersen, Michaela Selinger, Elisabeth Kulman, Michael Roider, Adrian Eröd, Max Emanuel Cencic | Arthaus

With very little to compare it to, the best way I can think of to describe Aribert Reimann’s Medea is that it can be very difficult to listen to. But, with it being a modern opera, you probably could have guessed as much anyway. As a world premiere, recorded in 2010 at the Vienna Staatsoper, it’s not even as if you can measure or contrast the performance against other recordings. What you can be sure of however, since the composer is still alive and taking an active part in its production – even down to writing the libretto himself, choosing the cast and writing specifically for their voices (as opera would have been traditionally done in the past) – is that this version of Medea is, for better or worse, as close as it is possible to be to Reimann’s intentions.

Whether it’s difficult or not is not what matters then, whether it’s not the most harmonious or beautiful sounds you’ve ever heard in an opera, nor whether it’s completely faithful to the composer’s intentions (though it is undoubtedly is all of the above), as much as whether it works as an opera on its own terms, that its story or message connects with the listener on some level and that its presentation is suited to the content. Medea is a familiar figure in the opera world – Cherubini’s version of the Greek tragedy and Maria Callas’ interpretation of it are almost legendary – a formidable female role on a par with Salome and Electra, and perhaps in that respect the name of Strauss can be invoked in the intensity and psychological acuity with which Reimann scores his version of the Medea legend.

The source is classical, of course, but Reimann draws from other sources than Euripides, bringing in the legend of the Golden Fleece and the Argonauts from Franz Grillparzer’s version of the stories. Reimann is known for his literary adaptations (particularly for his version of Lear), but as to what purpose or intent a modern opera looks back at classical subjects is difficult to say. Surprisingly, the composer seems to view Medea’s dilemma as being one of class anxiety and social climbing, both on her part from her background of Colchis - she is seen by herself and others as a barbarian - and on the part of Jason who, after suspicion has fallen on them for the death of Pelias, has fled Jolkos and sought sanctuary from King Creon, abandoning Medea in the process for the sophisticated life of Corinth and the hand of his rather more beautiful daughter Creusa.

Medea

Relating this conflict between old world and the new, between past and present – the set contrasting the bleak lunar landscape inhabited by Medea with the almost space-age nature of Corinth – the orchestration is accordingly made up of slow, discordant notes that are stretched and bent, a strangled string section, with woodwind trills, flatulent brass and deep percussive, almost industrial sounds. But it’s the voices that are the most expressive of the dilemma of the characters – high, emotional, intentionally strained, notes of anger, betrayal and despair that come close to a scream, yet – particularly in the case of Marlis Petersen as Medea – always remaining tuneful and musical. Medea consequently is not for those seeking beautiful melodies or harmonies, but rather a deeper expression of darker natures, uncomfortable alliances and fractured relationships in an intense retelling of the ancient Greek myth. On that level, Reimann’s Medea expresses everything the story ought to and as forcefully as it ought to be.

On Blu-ray, the opera looks and sounds magnificent (or indeed terrifying and deeply unsettling). The High Definition image is superbly clear, with strong contrasts and deep, well-defined colours. Both the PCM Stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks carry the full force of the music, the surround mix in particular deep and reverberating on the lower frequencies. Other than some notes on the composition and its performance in an accompanying booklet, there are no extra features on the Arthaus disc.