Queen of Spades Revival is Aces

Lise Davidsen and Yusif Eyvasov, photo @ Ken Howard

One dilemma Met operagoers love to fret about is how new productions inevitably sell well, but revivals quickly become tired and poorly attended. This season new productions of Porgy and Bess and Akhnaten were sold out but revivals of Manon and Orfeo ed Euridice played to half-empty houses.

The answer seems to be: inspired casting. This afternoon's performance of Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades was pretty sold out despite the production being nearly 25 years old. The cast ranged from good to great. The production by Elijah Mohinsky is nothing fancy but tells the story well and effectively creates a doom-and-gloom mood. There was nothing tired about this revival.

Davidsen as Lisa, photo @ Ken Howard
The big attraction was the Met debut of Lise Davidsen, who is only 32 but is already drawing comparisons to the great Scandinavian dramatic sopranos like Kirsten Flagstad and Birgit Nilsson. She arrived with a splashy NYTimes publicity article that shouted about a "one in a million" voice. Her voice, however, is the real deal and lives up to the hype. First of all, it's huge. It fills the auditorium with its highly focused, penetrating sound. It's also a very integrated voice -- there are no major differences between her upper register, lower register, and the core of her voice. If I have one quibble it's that for all its gleam and volume, the timbre is not particularly warm. If there's one singer she sounds the most like, I'd say it's Astrid Varnay.

Davidsen has almost too much voice for Lisa. Lisa is one of Tchaikovsky's introverted, dreamy heroines in the Tatiana/Iolanta/Odette family. Davidsen sounds like a Brünnhilde and exuded stateliness rather than romantic angst. She didn't look like a teenager at all. She towered over the rest of the cast, her high notes were like laser beams to your ears. Her acting was generalized. But one cannot argue with a voice of this quality.

Davidsen was most effective in the third act. Lisa's desperation was a better match for her huge voice.

Eyvasov as Hermann, photo @ Ken Howard
Yusif Eyvasov (Hermann) did excellent work as the tortured but mercenary Hermann. This long role is often called the "Russian Tristan." Eyvasov's voice in the upper register tends to acquire a rapid flicker vibrato. In this more centrally located role his vibrato was less prominent. Eyvasov's vocalism was especially effective in the third act duet with Lisa. He echoed Lisa's ardent vocal lines with a dull, dutiful inflection that reeked of insincerity. It was chilling enough to make Lisa's suicide understandable. He did sound slightly out of gas by the final "faro" card scene, but it's understandable.

Eyvasov said in interviews that this role pushed him to become a better actor. His Hermann was a batch of nervous ticks -- always pacing across the stage, hugging a wall, crouching. Eyvasov doesn't have a star timbre nor does he have a star's stage charisma. But he has the next best thing -- extreme competence and professionalism. Can't complain.

Larissa Diadkova as the Countess
The supporting cast was very fine. There really are no small roles in this opera as Tchaikovsky gives a major musical moment to all the characters. Larissa Diadkova was commanding as the Countess. She has the chilling authority needed for the role and she can still sing. Her mezzo sounds aged but not ancient. Her French aria had the right note of nostalgia. One can believe that in her younger days the Countess was quite a trick. And she acted well too -- her terror at Hermann was palpable.

Igor Golovatenko (Prince Yeletsky) was good rather than great -- his rendition of the baritone national anthem "Ya vas lyublyu" was efficient but rote. One didn't feel that Yeletsky really loved Lisa. But it's hard to listen to this aria when there are so many heart-melting renditions floating around on Youtube. There’s nothing wrong with Golovatenko's singing. He just wasn't as magical as other baritones in the past.

Here is Exhibit A of how great Yeletsky's aria can be:

Alexei Markov as Tomsky, photo @ Ken Howard
Alexey Markov was wonderful as Tomsky. He brings a rare ray of sunshine into this otherwise very gloomy opera. His Act 1 aria recounting the Countess's fortunes in love and gaming tables earned the biggest applause of the afternoon. He was also wonderful as Plutus in the otherwise rather dull Pastoral. Paul Groves and Raymond Aceto had small but effective cameos as random Russian noblemen.

Elena Maximova (Pauline) was a bit disappointing -- her voice is rather cold and without much emotional affect. Pauline has one of the opera's jewels -- her aria in Lisa's study is one of those sad little melodies that only Tchaikovsky could compose.

To see what this little aria can be:

This was my first live Queen of Spades so I can't really comment on Vasily Petrenko's conducting except to say that the all-important string section (Tchaikovsky's strings are always the beating heart of his music) of the Met orchestra sounded very fine, and the haunting orchestral interludes sprinkled throughout the opera were beautifully played. Petrenko changed gears for the Mozart-like Pastoral section. The chorus was as usual terrific.

Moshinsky's production, photo @ Ken Howard
Elijah Moshinsky's 25-year-old production doesn't look musty at all.  Mark Thompson's sets is effective in its simplicity -- panels and simple furniture moves mark most scene changes. The black, white and red color scheme reminds one of a deck of playing cards. The costumes do a reasonable approximation of 18th century fashion. The Pastoral's dancing thankfully did not have pointe-work (that was not a "thing" until the 19th century). The choreography by John Meehan was rather dull though. The frame around the stage suggests that the whole opera might be a flashback.

Moshinsky's production tells the story and tells it well. The curtain rises and if you're even slightly familiar with Imperial Russian society you know who these people are -- wastrel noblemen who drink and gamble their lives away. Modest Tchaikovsky's libretto isn't always the easiest to follow in terms of storyline but the use of the gambling metaphor for love and loss packs an emotional wallop.

There are only three more performances left. This is definitely the best thing I've seen this season other than Porgy and Bess.


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