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.