Sandwiched in between 13-hour shifts at the hospital on Saturday and Sunday this weekend, I made it once again to the Metropolitan Opera to hear Tchaikowsky’s The Queen of Spades. This was my first opera to hear by Tchaikowsky. Turns out, of his ~10 operas, only two are performed regularly outside of Russia.
The thing I was most looking forward to was hearing Ben Heppner on stage. I was a little disappointed. Although his artistry was evident in his role of Ghermann, his voice seemed a bit small, at times swallowed by the orchestra. It also had a slight nasal character without the open resonance I’ve heard on a number of his recordings. Yeletsky sang a fine aria in Act II. Maria Guleghina, as one of the leading sopranos, had a powerful voice that filled the hall, but her singing was unrefined, even clunky.
The set was impressive. With seven scenes spanning three acts, the director creatively explored the picture-framed stage with a sloping floor. The first scene featured a Russian street scene with a simple but beautiful backdrop of winter trees against a turquoise blue sky. Lisa’s room was feminine yet impressive with twenty-five foot French doors. Everything in the ball scene in Act II wowed the audience, from the three enormous Corninthian columns to the elaborate costumes of the Russian nobility. There was even a rather confusing appearance by the Empress, Catherine; although it had nothing to do with the plot, it captured the grandeur that only the Met can do when it pulls out all the stops. In contrast, the second scene of Act II was much simpler, having only a chair and an enormous painting of the Countess, which Ghermann revealed by flinging open a series of gigantic sliding doors. The first two scenes of the third act were stark as well, with minimal set, making for a contrast with the elaborate gambling house and huge male chorus in the final scene. Throughout, the director/designer made an effective use of light and dominating shadows.
The music very enjoyable. Tchaikowsky accomplishes a score that’s at once rich and graceful, at times even Beethovenian, like the opening of the second act. He provides a couple impressive piano and cello solos.
In the end, however, the opera failed on the psychological level. Even if personalities aren’t entirely believable in opera (are they ever?), a successful connection requires that the audience care about the characters. This didn’t happen for me. I found the double suicide more tiresome than distressing. The Countess’ character was as one-dimensional as the shepherd’s staff. I can only hope that Tchaikowsky found better librettos for his other operas.