Tchaikovsky – Pikovaya Dama

La Monnaie, Brussels – January 30 2005

Conductor: Daniele Callegari. Production: Richard Jones. Sets & costumes: John Macfarlane. Hermann: Vitali Taraschenko. Tomsky: Tómas Tómasson. Prince Yeletsky: Vladimir Chernov. The Countess: Nina Romanova. Lisa: Tatiana Monogarova. Pauline: Marina Domashenko. Chekalinsky: Lorenzo Caròla. Surin: Nabil Suliman. Chaplitsky: Marc Coulon. Narumov: Shadi Torbey. Major Domo: André Grégoire. Governess: Beata Morawska. Masha: Elise Gäbele.

The fall of iron-curtain communism may not have done wonders for the German economy, but it has certainly given opera a shot in the arm, releasing a seemingly endless supply of excellent singers. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the cast of Pikovaya Dama in Brussels was every bit as good as Gergiev’s on his Philips recording, though only one was actually in it (Chernov. In Brussels, Chernov and Taraschenko were the only two names I knew). However, I think some aspects of the production occasionally reduced their potential impact.

The least that can be said is that this Richard Jones’ staging is well-travelled. A co-production with Cardiff (the WNO toured various UK venues with it), Oslo and Bologna, it has also been to Toronto and is coming later this year to San Francisco. It is also clearly the product of much thought: if my review is so late, it’s because I’ve been trying to sort out the ideas. The overall atmosphere is nightmarish: gloomy but expressionistic. St Petersburg is decaying and shabby, and its society, wearing early- 20th-century clothes in shades of black and grey, is empty, vain and pleasure-seeking. At the ball, the revellers are not masked, but grotesquely made up and wearing paper crowns. They bring to mind Ensor’s outlandish painting of Christ’s entry into Brussels. The sets alternate between an empty black stage, across which the chorus pass in waves, and smaller rooms: Lisa’s, the countess’s, Hermann’s, the gaming house, which were (basically the same) boxes in sharp perspective, excellent for projecting sound back out – and easy to tour with.

A great deal is made of the countess’s living in the past and refusing the present and the ageing that goes with it. The opening curtain shows her portrait, young. It will return, on a smaller scale, in her room, and reappear in the gaming house, torn, after her death; but meanwhile, during the prelude, it is slowly replaced by the same portrait, but old. The curtain as act 3 opens is her death mask. In her public appearances, she is a sort of Mae West, in a honey-blond wig and “Marilyn” dress, though her gait is that of a very old lady (as she would be in 1915, reminiscing about La Pompadour). She was left by her maids in her old-fashioned bath-tub to confront Hermann with her back to the audience. She sang her haunting Grétry aria beautifully (one of the highlights of the show), but not seeing her face took much of the terror out of the scene.

For Jones, the characters in the opera are participating in a psychological experiment launched, as he tells Hermann the countess’s tale, by Tomsky (sung marvellously by Tómas Tómasson – Icelandic, this one, not a Slav). This is probably why the Intermezzo is staged (on a gaming table that will take on gigantic proportions in act 3) as a puppet show re-telling the countess’s tale and going on to include Hermann’s fatal role. But it is probably also why Hermann himself is played like a puppet (Jones says his Hermann is reserved and his madness restrained) or zombie, apparently reacting to nothing – not even when the dead countess reappears not as a ghost, but as a giant skeleton emerging beside him from under the sheets, a comic rather than scary moment, raising titters. (Jones wants to hint at gerontophilia.)

Taraschenko’s tenor is powerful, brassy and in tune, a little rough round the edges – but so was Vickers’: it fits the part. But the absence of charisma makes it very hard to understand why Lisa still prefers her penniless madman after being wooed with the swoon-making “Ya vas lyublyu” by the younger, handsomer Yeletsky/Chernov. His big number was, to my ear, steadier than on the CD, but held back by the production requiring him, too, to be lacking in character (“The lights are on but nobody’s home” is how Jones describes him). Another highlight nevertheless.

Tatiana Monogarova made a younger, fresher sounding Lisa than Guleghina on disc. She was occasionally slightly stretched but still excellent alone or in her superb duos with Pauline – the equally excellent Marina Domashenko, whose big, dark, plummy, smoky voice gave us further highlights and should take her a very long way. In Act 3 Monogarova, Taraschenko and Chernov all shook off the constraints imposed by the production and let rip. She threw herself wholeheartedly into her midnight aria – but not into the river: she suffocated herself with a plastic bag left behind by Hermann as he dashed off to play cards, Chernov gave us of his best – which is very good indeed – and Taraschenko finally cast off his strait-jacket and acted the part.

Daniele Callegari and an orchestra on mid-season form played with a taut, Verdian vigour and drama that reminded us this opera was composed in Florence and shed interesting new light, for me, on Tchaikovsky’s “Europeanness.” All in all, an afternoon more than well spent. Look out for all these names.

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