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The man who didn’t do it with Pelleas…

… doesn’t do it with Pikovaya Dama.

The Queen of Spades review – Herheim puts Tchaikovsky centre stage for stimulating frustration

2 / 5 stars 2 out of 5 stars.

Drink the funny water, Yeletsky!

If ever there was a time to read the reviews before going:
[Herheim} is not half as interested in the story of Pushkin’s novella and Tchaikovsky’s opera as he is in the story of Tchaikovsky himself. In fact, forget Pushkin; this is all about Tchaikovsky. The composer was the toast of musical Russia; he was also a depressive, a gay man who had a breakdown following a disastrous marriage, someone who could plausibly have drunk the cholera-infected water that killed him in full awareness that it was contaminated. Knowledge of all this is crucial to understanding the next three hours on stage, and Herheim concedes us a few projected lines of explanation at the very start.
Say what? It’s kind of bad that he’s not interested in the novella, since it’s one of the better ones Pushkin penned (better than that upper class melodrama Onegin, for my money at least).
Herheim has projected Tchaikovsky into the character of Yeletsky, the dull old prince who offers heroine Liza love and security only for her to gamble her honour and sanity on flaky antihero Gherman instead.
The disastrous marriage might’s been a dead giveaway… I’ve seen this opera a few times and I can’t even remember the old dude.
brandishing glasses half full of iridescent cholera water.
That’s kinda cool, in that Simpsons’ three-eyed fish kind of way.
Yeletsky is normally a bit part, singing little except one of Tchaikovsky’s most ravishing ariashow beautifully Tchaikovsky wrote for the boring men in his operas, and how he must have craved ordinariness for himself!
Maybe he was craving the boring men! This is the guy who complained Handel was awful. I rest my case.
miming away at the piano like some 19th-century version of Animal from The Muppets, or disrupting any intimate scene between other characters.
I like that image! Haha, if only this is so funny I’m more down with this production than you’d think from the writeup.
The Royal Opera has not recently been a stranger to stagings about operas rather than of them: Barrie Kosky’s Carmen was a breath of fresh air.
Kosky is always a breath of fresh air.
Eva-Maria Westbroek’s soprano misses the ideal innocence for Liza, and Aleksandrs Antonenko sings Gherman with a scything tenor that’s a blunt instrument, too often veering off pitch.
Westbroek is Liza? A bit odd even on paper. But I do like the schwing on Antonenko. I am looking forward to the off pitch moments 😀
and Felicity Palmer, mesmerising as the Old Countess. If this is indeed this remarkable singer’s last stage role, it’s a fittingly memorable one.
Whew! The Countess is the best part of the show, any day. Nothing of Polina, so I guess we don’t get the Mozart-pastiche trouser role bit. Meh, Herheim, you be no fun.
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ROH 2018-19 Winter Season now on general sale

It started yesterday, whilst I was merrily lounging in bed but I still got tickets to the Queen of Spades and Kat’a Kabanova at leisure just now. Kat’a is especially cheap (Queen is not). Here‘s the rest of your options.

So after that somewhat Pelleas at Glyndebourne, Herheim comes to ROH for the Queen of Spades, whilst it’s up to dehggi favourite Richard Jones to tackle Kat’a, which also sees Amanda Majeski’s debut at ROH. Very curious about this.

Upcoming at ROH and Glyndebourne 2019

What with everything, I missed the Gen Sale for the return to Wagner at ROH (oh, no!). The Ring Cycle is back this Autumn, with Pappano at the helm. I may look up returns for Stemme’s sake (aka, best intentions). Otherwise, we have the following:

Solomon in concert with Zazzo in the title role

Verdi’s Requiem with Jamie Barton and Stoyanova; sold out at this point

Simon Boranegra… for those of strong Verdi constitution (but where there is Wagner, there is also Verdi and there will be another production for the hardcore Verdians soon; an opera we know and I love to make fun of, because a recent new production at ENO clearly was not enough)

Carmen and Hansel and Gretel for the mezzo-deprived; Dudnikova might be an interesting Carmen, I liked her Principessa de Bouillon.

Winter:

The Queen of Spades = must not forget

Traviata for the casual goer – it’s still the much loved production

Katya Kabanova – I’ll probably go

Così returns but don’t count me in

Insights Masterclass with soprano Angel Blue who’s doing a stint of Traviata this season

Spring:

La forza del destino 😉 yep, that one, in Loy’s vision; with Trebs and the Alvaro of our times

Faust – hm, I might go, see how Damrau is holding up, PLUS it’s got Abrahamyan in her ROH debut (!) as Siebel (let’s all lament the fate of very good mezzos). On the downside, Ettinger conducts.

Billy Budd conducted by Ivon Bolton – the all male cast opera, let’s check it out…

Andrea Chenier – NOT with the Alvaro of our times but with Alagna and Radvanovsky! How can we resist that offer?!

Tosca with Opolais/Grigolo/Terfel but the last show brings Draculette back to her rightful territory so yay for those who care.

Summer:

Boris Godunov still with Terfel but without Ain Anger; so soon? Maybe because they were short of money for a new production…

Carmen, because we’d already missed her, this time with Margaine, and Pisaroni as Escamillo, ha!

Figaro after a couple of seasons, because there are only 3 operas and 1/2 by Mozart; this is the season with Kimchilia Bartoli as Cherubino but also unusually with Gerhaher as Figaro plus Keenlyside as the Count. You know it might actually be worth revisiting and weirdly enough, for the men.

La fille du regiment returns once more, now with Devieilhe, and Camarena will show us his 3283576 high C in a row. Then again, Pido conducts.

In conclusion, some interesting turns but generally a rather meh year ahead for yours truly’s taste.

Glyndebourne 2019

La damnation de Faust – a Richard Jones production, so it could be much fun

Rusalka – nah

Il barbiere – see below

Die Zauberflote – I’ll have to see it at some point, don’t know that this is that point; however, Agathe, David Portillo is Tamino 😉

Cendrillon – usually a spectacular mezzo-mezzo borefest, now with DeNiese and the ever trouserable Kate Lindsey; I mean, they had to make up for the music…

Rinaldo with DeShong in the title role. A bit of a strange choice IMO, but to be honest I have not heard her live and in Handel to boot. I was proven wrong before.

ROH rumours up to 2021

Fantastic ROH news:

During this extended period there will be 2 (yes, two) new Handel productions! The very brand new one by Kosky! The other one – new to ROH – you know and love by Loy (not that one, the other one). Scroll down 😉

Tl;dr: this is turning into a really excting period at ROH and not just because of Handel (but especially). I am also expecting Poppea cca Januray 2020, after the first two Monteverdi instalments. Very low on Mozart, though. You know there is more to him than the DaPonte stuff (and Mitridate).

It’s that time of the year people are eager to find out what’s coming up, so here are some updates from the ever reliable source. I put a NEW next to the information that’s transpired since my last post on the subject:

late 2018 – 2019

Katya Kabanova (Janacek)
NEW Fall 2018 | Production: Richard Jones all the Janacek! from Jones!

The Queen of Spades (Tchaikovsky) Co-Production with De Nederlandse Opera | Production: Stefan Herheim
NEW January 2019 | Polina: Anna Goryachova <- will they keep the trouser role scene?

La Forza Del Destino (Verdi) February 2019 | Conductor: Antonio Pappano
NEW:
Production: Christof Loy <- Leo gets a white shirt?
Don Alvaro: Jonas Kaufmann
Leonora: Anna Netrebko
Fra Melitone: Alessandro Corbelli

NEW Das Liebesverbot (Wagner) coproduction with Teatro Real-Madrid
Spring 2019 | Director: Kasper Holten

NEW Billy Budd (Britten)
Conductor: Richard Farnes | Director: David McVicar hm, why not?

NEW Le nozze di Figaro (Mozart)
2019 La Contessa: Julia Kleiter

Faust (Gounod)
NEW March 2019 | Marguérite: Diana Damrau I might go

NEW Otello (Verdi)
Desdemona: Ermonela Jaho

Andrea Chénier (Giordano)
NEW Spring 2019 (pushed back)

2019 – 2020

NEW Jenufa (Janacek)
Director:  Claus Guth
Kostelnicka: Karita Mattila yes to more Mattila and more Janacek. Hope Guth will be on form.

Death in Venice (Britten)
NEW November
Conductor: Mark Elder | Production: David McVicar

Agrippina (Händel)
Production: Barrie Kosky ❤ you know you want to come to London!

[edit: debuting in Munich this Summer with Coote in the title role and Fagioli and Davies as Nerone and Ottone]

NEW REVIVALS

Elektra (Strauss) 2020
Klytemnestra: Karita Mattila I’ll go see her!

Parsifal (Wagner) 2020
Conductor: Semyon Bychkov

Madama Butterfly (Puccini) Summer 2020
Conductor: Antonio Pappano
Goro: Carlo Bosi

NEW 2020 – 2021

Les Contes d’Hoffmann (Offenbach) Fall 2020
Production: Michieletto
Hoffmann: Juan Diego Florez

So they’re chucking out their ancient Hoffmann? Good riddance! I hope Michieletto does something with this sexist story. On the other hand, there’s a lot of Hoffmann in just a few years, chap wrote other fun stuff (like his take of Orphee).

Hänsel und Gretel (Humperdinck)   
Production: Antony McDonald I wonder if it’s replacing the cancelled Konigskinder?

4 new works inspired by Slavoj Zizek’s writings (Saariaho, Turnage, Francesconi, Widmann)  heh, interesting idea
Librettist: Sofi Oksanen

Alcina (Händel) ❤ ❤ ❤
Production: Christof Loy (from Zurich)
Bradamante: Varduhi Abrahamyan ❤

I’m expecting everyone to London for an extended Alcina party!

Věc Makropulos (Janacek) Mattila, right? She sang it at Southbank a couple of years back

Yesteryear youtube comments: Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and Berlioz insult Handel

nomoreniceguys

Cheers ClassicFM for being inspirational for once! Yes, famous composers ignore the reply button, each comment must stand on its splendid own…

The Queen of Spades (ENO, 17 June 2015)

Today I should’ve been at Glyndebourne for Die Entfuhrung but I was schythed down by a merciless cold so I’m finishing up this write-up instead. Luckily, there’s quite a bit of Mozartean influence. But Tchaikovsky himself isn’t a slouch at spinning a tune either.

Hermann: Peter Hoare
Lisa: Giselle Allen
Countess: Felicity Palmer
Prince Yeletsky: Nicholas Pallesen
Count Tomsky: Gregory Dahl
Pauline: Catherine Young
Tchenkalinsky: Colin Judson
Sourin: Wyn Pencarreg
Governess: Valerie Reid
Mascha: Katie Bird
Tchaplitsky: Peter Van Hulle
Narumov: Charles Johnston
Conductor: Edward Gardner | ENO Choir and Orchestra | Co-production with Fondazione Teatro La Fenice di Venezia
Director: David Alden

Part I

The Ace of Spades

This production is as cynical as it gets. By contrast, Hoare’s lyric Hermann appears in an unsually favourable light. Alden uses the weirdly cheerful prologue of children at play to establish that reality is frequently intruded upon by Hermann’s hallucinations. You know he’s getting unsettled whenever a rectangle in the back wall opens to show a musically and visually intrusive scene. Interestingly, the Countess and Liza first enter through that same rectangle.

Gardner’s conducting ephasised the contrasts to the point the sound verged on disjointed. It made sense, considering the route taken by the direction. As such, the Mozartness of certain parts (the ball in scene 1 of act II) was way obvious. Good thing, too, as the chorus that starts act II is strongly reminiscent of Idomeneo’s Nettuno s’onori. The masque presented at Yeletsky’s party, cheerfully out of place with the heartbreak of the romantic score, gives Alden the opportunity to get silly. I suppose the choreography centred on tossing stuffed animal heads in the air illustrates that Hermann is beyond upset with Liza’s engagement to Yeletsky. Happy endings where the girl goes for the poor but loving suitor (the masque’s plot) appear to him as utterly ludicrous.

Having not read the short story there is something crucial I never quite got. He unexpectedly learns that the woman he hopelessly loves actually returns his feelings. Why does he then suddenly make a sharp turn and starts getting more interested in The Countess’ secret? My only explaination is he thought that even though Liza loved him they couldn’t possibly marry considering he was poor. He needed a plan to get rich pronto. Or maybe it’s just the curse of many an opera libretto: sense, what sense? Or, you know, he’s gay. The woman you’ve been pining for is throwing herself at you and you’re like so how’s your grandmother, hon?

Liza: Hermann, take the key to my grandmother’s room. From there you can enter mine. I’ve decided to lose my virginity to you tomorrow night.
Hermann: tomorrow? I must get to the Countess’ room tonight!
Liza: tonight? Uh… ok, I guess I could lose my virginity sooner than planned because I really love you, although that’s a really big deal for a girl, especially before the 1960s, you know.
Hermann: yes, I must get the secret tonight!

Who said romance was dead? Still, good job Hoare for never coming off like a heartless dickhead. He brings out the addict’s tragedy in the last scene. Excellent performance.

Considering this opera is named after the mysterious old countess you’d think she has a lot to sing. She doesn’t. She usually lurks around as a thought in Hermann’s feverish mind. The scene where she reminisces about the past is the only one where she has centre stage. She appears a typical old woman: grumpy and lacking patience with the younger generation, who as ever, doesn’t measure up to the good old days. She sings a sentimental tune from her youth. The legend around her secret is most likely just that. Count de St. Germain – or someone like him – probably lent her the money she lost at cards. Or something equally as mundane. But Hermann of course imagines fabulous things were at play. He scares her to death and later on his guilty conscience coupled with his already obsessed mind brings her back as a hallucination where she tells him her supposed secret.

Felicity Palmer does a subtle job with the atmospheric moment when the Countess, now alone, sings a happy/sad version of Grétry’s Je crains de lui parler la nuit. It feels like a window into another world, creepy more by virtue of sounding so old fashioned and coming from an old woman. In spite of her age Palmer isn’t shrill. I like how she keeps it subtle throught to express the Countess’ almost otherwordly nature. There’s also an elegance to her singing that convinces us that she was once a high society beauty who could have made the notoriously elusive Count of St. Germain share a secret with her.

I like this moment a lot in the same way I like cover versions. Taking liberties with an existing piece digs out surprising new meanings when done successfully. Also Tchaikovsky’s playing with different styles is one my favourite things about this opera. We’ve got this, we have the Mozart pastiche, the traditional Russian songs, the Orthodox church music, the whiff of belcanto that runs through most of the 19th century Russian opera, the late Romantic influences. It takes a special talent to makes it all work.

Part II

Mezzosopranos – the bass players of the opera world

Mezzos are like blenders: you know you need one but you’re never too sure why.

Giuseppe Verdi*

Almost invariably a rock band includes a bass player but 9 times out of 10 his work is pushed back in the final mix. There are leading mezzo roles in the repertoire. But most are just there to provide the harmony to the soprano’s melody. Otherwise known as the trusty companion/best friend/old nurse/mother/auntie/other wise women. Sometimes – especially if they clean up nicely in a suit – they get drafted to sing the boy roles that tenors (and sometimes countertenors) can’t cope with. Other times they take one for the team/get lucky (depending on inclination) and play the town slut/evil woman. So spoiled for choice! The best kept secret: the mezzo role rarely meets an untimely death. While sopranos and tenors get felled left and right and baritones and basses have to live ever after with their evil deed-stained souls, the worldly mezzo digs her heels in and lives to tell the tale (as a wise old woman).

This production offers a once in a lifetime opportunity for a versatile mezzo to score a 3 in 1: from the cheerful and musically inclined best friend of act I to the lucky in love cheeky shepherd in the act II masque to the party animal of the gambling scene there’s nothing she can’t do. Except it’s the the soprano who gets all the applause. Or in the case of this opera, the tenor.

Young does it all quite valiantly, though I thought her acting as good friend Pauline was rather odd. Or maybe that was the personenregie, which here could be summed up as: no matter what you do, act OTT. The scene with Liza, Pauline and the other girls goes like this: Liza and Pauline sing a song about brooklets in the evening (a lied, eh?). Then Liza asks Pauline to sing one alone. She obliges and sings a proper Russian dirge about being unlucky in love, which she says is Liza’s favourite song. Forshadow city; the tune is later recalled in the countess’ song – oddly, in a happier manner. But after this they all sing the only cheerful Russian tune known to man (and woman)! What a treasure this opera is 😉

There is really nothing in this scene that calls for OTT-ness. It’s girls singing and some undertow but that can be done in an innocent manner. Maybe that’s it, this production doesn’t know innocence. I guess we need to allow for this being in English but the dirge’s specific flavour of Russian wistfulness didn’t come out as strongly as it could. Talking about OTT, whatever one thinks about feeling rotten, you need to raise it up a few notches if you’ve got a Russian character.

In conclusion: it’s a beautiful, sophisticated score, that makes typical Italian or German opera sound provincial. It’s got some wonderful tunes for the winds and all that was served very well by this performance. I wasn’t all that taken by Allen’s tone though I can’t say she didn’t do her job. The singers in the smaller roles were fine enough. I’d have liked less cynicism (!) but the production did make sense after all.

* it appears the quote is apocryphal… 😉