Not quite the Queen of them all, still a fine production
'The Queen of Spades' is a very close second to 'Eugene Onegin' as among Tchaikovsky's best operas, and well as one of his best works. It has a great story with memorable characters, while the music is to die for.
With the exception of the often musically brilliant but visually and dramatically puzzling Vladimir Galouzine production all the productions of 'The Queen of Spades' range from very good to outstanding, the Roman Tikhimirov film and the production with Felicity Palmer as Countess coming off best. This is a fine production too, with more great things than things that do not come off. One scene could have been better executed and one performance wasn't to my taste, but while not the Queen of them all, or not quite checkmate, when the production was good it was really good.
It is a traditional production and very tasteful and elegant. It is more Alexander Pushkin (the author of the original story) than Modest Tchaikovsky (the opera's librettist), with the setting having been pushed back 40 years, but it didn't harm the storytelling at all. The staging is very compelling, the highlight being the earth-shattering and intense card scene and the production does deserve credit for not having Hermann mad throughout (which misses the point of the character and story) like the Galouzine production did, instead showing a slowly progressed but very believable descent into madness.
Another standout was the choreography for the dances, Bolshoi is given a run for its money in this regard, after the pedestrian choreography in the Kirov production and it being all over the place in the Galouzine one this is one of the best-choreographed 'Queen of Spades' productions on DVD. The only scene that could have come off better was Lisa's suicide scene, which should have been much more moving and dramatic instead it feels dull and somewhat protracted.
On a musical level, issues are very few. The orchestra provide ravishing tones, richly detailed textures and powerful, nuanced and stylish playing. The chorus are very animated and are very well-balanced and on top form vocally. The conducting is alert yet sympathetic throughout.
Mischa Didyk is leagues better as Hermann, a heavy sing and a character on stage for almost the entire time, than he was as Manrico in the odd 2012 production of 'Il Trovatore'. He is much more engaged and authoritative, and while it is not the most beautiful or sensuous of sounds the voice is much more pleasant and less strained with more of a dynamic range. Not everybody liked Emily Magee here, from personal opinion she was very moving with enough steel to not make Lisa passive, and while her voice is big and rich it is not squally or strident.
Ludovic Tezier is a very eloquent and movingly sorrowful Prince Yeletsky, his Russian is better and more idiomatic here than in the Galouzine performance and he has a lovely warm sound that comes through loud and clear in his beautiful aria. Lado Ataneli sings with wit and elegance and after seeing him as particularly evil villains such as Scarpia and Iago it was really nice to see a more sympathetic side in a role like Tomsky that could be more different. Best of all is Ewa Podles' absolutely electrifying in every sense of the word Countess.
Elena Zaremba is the only one who disappoints as Pauline, her acting is good if not entirely inhabiting the role but while she has shown some great singing in other productions she is next to unlistenable here, singing with such unsteadiness that one can drive a truck through the wobble and it was not easy often to tell what note she was singing because she was so under-pitch more times to count.
All in all, a fine production of 'The Queen of Spades', that does Pushkin and Tchaikovsky proud on the whole, if not quite the Queen of them all. 8/10 Bethany Cox
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