Odessa National Opera

Tschaikowsky, Queen of Spades

Tschaikowsky’s psychodrama, the Queen of Spades, by design has more plot than action. That said, a lot happens inside the mind of the main character, Gyerman, and the opera provides a platform, when allowed, to generate much excitement. (Note to self: if about to see this opera, never again prepare by listening the night before to my 1960s live recording from Moscow – unfortunately only excerpts – with Zurab Anjaparidze and Galina Vishnyevskaya, the greatest dramatic tenor and dramatic soprano of all time singing Gyerman and Liza – as no one will likely ever come close).

Tonight’s production at the Odessa National Opera fell flat on stage. The director, Aleksandr Titel from Moscow’s relaible Stanislavsky Opera, did not replicate the successful production I saw at his theater five years ago (itself a 1976 production probably not by Titel), instead trying to mix up the reality that the characters, particularly Gyerman, experience. It is never quite clear what on stage is real (or real from the perspective of the plot) or imagined.

I assume the intention was to use this approach to augment the psychosis, but instead the blocking came out static, with even less action or potential to act out. The entire staging took place in what appeared to be the square in front of St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg (including interior scenes which spilled into the square – so were those bedrooms and ballrooms, or were those hallucinations?). Two of Gyerman’s comrades doubled as gargoyles from the cathedral. Costumes were mostly of the right period, but there was a lack of attention to detail (baby carriages in the opening scene were modern, for example; Gyerman carried a flashlight instead of a candle lamp). The ballet scene, a staple in opera of that period, was even more detached from the plot than usual. In what should have been the most dramatic scene, Liza didn’t jump into the canal to commit suicide, but only walked off the back of the stage (and Gyerman had already departed the scene, not noticeably in a mad frenzy) – one longs for the days of Vishnyevskaya throwing herself from the parapet while Anjaparidze, eyes ablaze, cackled at his impending victory at cards.

If the staging added nothing, and indeed subtracted, what was left was to listen to the music. Aleksandru Samoila, the Moldovan guest conductor, gave a masterful reading (except for the ballet sequences, which did not fit – perhaps they were good in their own right, but so disconnected from the rest of his interpretation that they stood out negatively). Tension permeated. If Titel did not allow for proper psychoses on stage, then Samoila provided them from the pit. The drama did not happen on the stage but down below, and the quite fine orchestra twisted and turned with every nuance from the podium. It was worth closing my eyes and imagining what should have happened on stage.

The cast was adequate throughout. It is not clear whom I heard, since the program did not indicate any cast whatsoever (or much of anything – it was essentially just an essay by the theater’s boss about the theater’s various celebrations of the 175th anniversary of Tschaikowsky’s birth and connections with Odessa). The website showed which singers have which roles in their repertory this season, but not who was singing tonight (and it indicated about three singers per character, so I couldn’t begin to guess). The Gyerman had a tired-sounding voice – big enough to make it through the whole night in full form, but just a bit too dry – but the others, in variously smaller roles, got through sounding fine. If they had sung with the orchestra, then they might have provided more emotive performances; instead they appear to have sung with the stage directions, rather one-dimensionally. I suspect they could have done better.