||[May. 2nd, 2010|10:04 pm]
Saturday night I had the great privilege of attending the final performance of Houston Grand Opera's production of Tchaikovksy's THE QUEEN OF SPADES, and in every way it was an evening I will expect to stay with me for a long time to come. |
While it was impressive on numerous levels, its most profound effect on me was unquestionably the music itself. This is an enormous work by one of the greatest of all composers, and was vivid, living proof not only that powerful orchestral music can retain its relevance and immortality in our time, but also that Tchaikovsky's heart lived unmistakably in the theater.
Ambitious in scale, masterful in technique, texture, content and orchestration, Tchaikovsky not only sustains this enormous behemoth of a work with unfailing craft and confidence but literally propels it constantly forward with unflagging variety and invention. Time and time again, the opera shifts from melodrama to metaphor, from dramatically climactic textures to exquisitely lovely melody, from a cosmopolitan symphonic sophistication to traditional "Russianness," and from traditional 19th-century techniques to moments of near-Wagnerian orchestral power or soulful vocal expressionism. There are even two conspicuous homages to Tchaikovsky's beloved Mozart, one in the text (of a passage that Tomsky sings) and the other an extended classical "Pastorale" in Act Two of almost neoclassical proportions.
Surely this is Tchaikovsky's most "modernist" work, bravely and confidently so. It certainly is his most ambitious work, and it's rather stunning how much dramatic power he achieves, how many brilliant choices are made not only musically but in terms of the opera's dramatic potential. While this production may take things further visually than anything Tchaikovsky might have imagined, all the layers of psychological complexity are right there in the score (case in point: note how when Herman confronts the Countess in her room, the music quiets and then grinds down to a moment of complete silence even as Herman cannot sustain his conviction to kill, an effect which also then represents the stopping of the Countess' heart).
As a composer I could not help but feel deeply inspired by such compositional achievement, the likes of which we can rarely expect to encounter in our time. Clearly this is a model of fearless writing, of Tchaikovsky racing along in the fast lane and sustaining an almost superhumanly expert level of invention and creativity for 3 hours of uncompromised, fully committed music. There is perhaps no higher complement I can pay this piece than to say that it had much to teach me, both about music itself and about theater. For example, it was clear that while the score is filled with propulsive orchestral passages that wait for no-one, very often Tchaikovsky scored the arias in a totally different way that fully supported rubato and personal choices by the singers without any potential mishaps in the pit. To hear this practical distinction so clearly (and effectively) exercised by an experienced composer who knew exactly what he was doing (both in the artistic and practical senses) represented a lesson better taught by such expert example than via any textbook. Any work that leaves me at the end with the sense of "knowing more" about my own art is something to be treasured.
The production itself, originated by the Welsh National Opera, is ambitious as well, if a little on the austere side in terms of decor. But it is intelligent, provocative and with a few truly brilliant visual and interpretive elements, especially the puppets and the multiple uses of a special rolling bedroom. Curiously, the evening begins with the production's least compelling scene, a very minimalist three-bench park in which we gradually meet all the protagonists in a kind of scrolling tableau whose strongest visuals involve the adult and children's chorus. But the presentation of the exposition of the card story is very static indeed, redeemed only by the substantial acting gifts of Tómas Tómasson as Tomsky and by the piercingly passionate singing of tenor Vladimir Galouzine as Herman.
But as soon as this expositional scene concludes, we move immediately to the most sublimely effective sustained episode of the whole evening, the scene in Lisa's bedroom. In forced perspective we see her small room, with an odd skylight-window open to the sky. The room is filled with her young friends as she sings a gorgeous duet (from her bed) with her friend Pauline (sumptuously sung by Maria Markina, whose voice is just as impressive as that of any of the principals). In an almost audacious move, Tchaikovsky shuts down the orchestra completely and begins this scene with onstage piano only. It was during this moment, with its quiet melodic simplicity and austerely intimate texture coming after the more conventionally full-throttled expositional scene with its tutti histrionics from Herman, Tomsky & Company, that I began to sense palpably that I was in the hands of a genius, and in for a fascinating evening of contrasts.
Finally, when the friends leave, and Lisa (the vocally magnificent Tatiana Monogarova) lies awake singing of her mysterious admirer, the admirer himself appears in the skylight and sings back to her. The ensuing scene, as Herman eventually enters the room and pledges his love to a conflicted Lisa, is the most emotionally moving passage in the entire opera, and the staging helps achieve this brilliantly through such physical motifs such as Lisa pressing herself against a wall in muted denial of her passion or in tentative handholds between the erstwhile lovers when they are not facing each other. (Herman even asks her "why are you crying" when he cannot see that she is crying, which subtextually "feels" in this production like an expression of their essential connection). This scene made me weep, the only time during the opera in which I had that emotional a reaction.
In Act Two, Scene 1, puppetry is introduced in a brilliant fashion to tell the metaphorical "pastorale" story which is a microcosmic variation of the larger narrative (and yet another layer of contrasts from Mr. Tchaikovsky). Fortunately, the device by which the puppets roles are sung by principals gives us another chance to listen to the principals, including Ms. Markina. The whole party-and-pastorale as staged is fascinating and gloriously successful, ending with a high-powered choral anthem to Catherine the Great in full-tilt Russian nationalist mode, bringing the large chorus downstage "in one" to fill the hall with Tsarist fervor.
We are back to the bedroom set for Scene Two, in which the underlying creepiness of the story itself begin to to be felt in claustrophobic staging involving such elements as the Countess' portrait, her nostalgic singing of Grétry music, a bathtub, a phalanx of maids, and Herman's ironic golden crown and pistol. Here if anywhere, Tchaikovsky outdoes the director and designers, creating even more a sense of suspense, doom and encroaching madness than either the staging or setting can match. As the curtain falls, we have turned the corner into the chaotic tragedy which is to come.
In Act 3, the designers triumph again by taking the rather static "letter-reading" and insomniac soliloquy of Herman and placing it in a gigantic bed in a tiny bedroom as viewed from above, complete with both a magical effect of dropping the letter to the floor and, later, in another tour-de-force of puppetry, having the ghost of the Countess join Herman in his bed. Scene 2 returns us to the three-bench park of the opera's opening, as Ms. Monogarova fills the empty space with thrilling singing and acting as she waits with increasing dread for Herman to arrive. Tchaikovsky emphasizes material which evokes his late symphonies and even, curiously, the music of Schumann, another composer Tchaikovsky admired. This scene contains the production's one blatant anachronism -- a plastic bag in which Herman carries his moneybox -- but the director seemingly uses this anomaly intentionally (hold on, dramaturgs!), drawing our attention to it and then using it to very modern effect as though a contemporary deus ex machina has been teleported into the 19th century to advance the tragedy.
Finally, the production pushes us into an intensely agitated final scene: an amazingly surrealist version of the gambling room, with the male chorus and all male principals crammed into the small bedroom along with a huge tilted table on which most of the action of the finale takes place in a kind of Bruegel- or Dali-esque frenzy. The male chorus shines here in traditional "Russian Male Chorus" fashion, though there is an edge of drunken madness to most of the proceedings. The production's only seeming miscalculation occurs here: Tomsky sings his raucous ode to women while playfully molesting a random man-in-drag-and-makeup. The moment feels out of place despite the potential resonances to Tchaikovsky's own inner turmoils because it is not staged strongly or surrealistically enough to become a metaphor for latent misogyny (or latent anything else, really), nor does it make the presence of the drag-queen seem organic to the event taking place realistically. Unlike the plastic bag, it doesn't "pay off," so winds up taking the audience slightly "out of the story" in a literal way without later using this element to make a greater point. It doesn't suggest any particular relevant subtext, so it feels random rather than organic to the production -- so one has to conclude it was the one device that "doesn't work." (It's not the presence of the homosexual element that doesn't work -- indeed its presence might have made sense if handled differently -- it's the fact that it is not effectively contextualized in any way that makes it seem coherently relevant to the scene).
But despite that momentary sense of contextual derailment, the work nevertheless climaxes with great intensity in these extended and declamatory final moments, with even a final macabre appearance of puppetry to push it all over-the top. [I couldn't help observing however that as in SWEENEY TODD, we are slightly less moved emotionally by Herman's tragic ending because he had already callously allowed or caused the deaths of other characters we cared about as he moved into a place of amoral madness. Contrast this with the final scene of Stravinsky/Auden's THE RAKE'S PROGRESS, in which Anne comes to visit our hero in the asylum and sings him to sleep without his knowing who she is -- that conclusion is far more emotionally devastating because it is Tom himself who has suffered the ultimate effects of his actions, not those people he loved. For my tastes this makes more effective tragedy, though exceptions like OTHELLO abound].
It was interesting to read afterward that Tchaikovsky himself, along with his brother Modest, wrote the libretto, because there were many moments which felt somehow more "Western European" in their expressions and word choices (for example: toasting with "hurrah" instead of "slava" or "nasdravye") and the sensibilities as a whole seem to sometimes eschew the more straightforwardly Russian. Watching the opera I found myself wondering how Tchaikovsky had found a Russian librettist who was as much of a European polyglot as he was -- even the names of the characters are "westernized" from the original Pushkin. To then find out that Tchaikovsky wrote it himself answers the question handily. Subsequent reading of the notes even revealed that Tchaikovsky composed the work in Florence, and also, amazingly, that he composed it in only a few months of concentrated effort. I cannot exaggerate enough the usefulness to a composer to be able to work on nothing but a single large work for several months with no other work distracting him -- it's a luxury we rarely get these days because most of what we write has to be done in bits and pieces between more menial concerns, with momentum and "flow" lost over and over again, unless a commission ensures the ability to concentrate on just the one thing. If there was ever a work which argues strongly in favor of letting a composer really immerse himself or herself exclusively in one large creative task for a period of time, it is THE QUEEN OF SPADES.
The evening was filled with a sense of unusual achievement from end to end. I don't think you could find a better Herman or Lisa than Mr. Galouzine and Ms. Mongarova, and surely most productions wouldn't have a Pauline as vocally sublime as Ms. Markina. I would have sworn that the fellow who played the Prince was not Russian at all, given his curiously unconvincing singing in Russian (almost as though some random midwestern baritone had been thrown into the mix), but his name (Vasily Ladyuk) and his bio assure me he is very much a Russian. He was handsome and acted well, but was not on the same level vocally as the other principals in this production. Conversely, I assumed the powerful, dramatically assured Tómasson must be Russian, but he turned out to be Icelandic. Even Judith Forst as the Countess made a poignantly indelible impression in a role which is admittedly the antithesis of bravura.
The chorus was impressive throughout (especially as they were given quite a bit of movement and choreographic staging), as was the children's chorus, who appear briefly early on with more than a whiff of the pungent Soviet era yet to come when the opera was written. But my warmest sustained admiration throughout the evening went to the magnificent playing of the HGO Orchestra under the baton of Carlo Rizzi. This was a world-class orchestral performance of an extremely demanding work, and their playing was a triumph by any standard. Rizzi (of whom I had a clear view all evening) impressed me as a calmly affable, unruffled yet authoritative leader of the proceedings, conducting with clarity, intelligence and enthusiasm, giving singers the moments of rubato and passion they seemed to want and yet pushing the score ahead with alacrity and taste without any sense of haste, compromise or insecurity. In terms of balance, ensemble and a fierce atmosphere of concentrated collective unity, this orchestra shone as one of the true stars of the evening. It's hard to imagine this colossal work being played any better anywhere in the world.