Tchaikovsky – Pikovaya Dama

ONP Bastille, Tuesday January 31 2012

Conductor: Dimitri Jurowski. Production: Lev Dodin. Sets: David Borovsky. Costumes: Chloe Obolensky. Lighting: Jean Kalman. Hermann: Vladimir Galuzin. Tomsky: Evgeny Nikitin. Prince Yeletsky: Ludovic Tézier. Chekalinsky: Martin Mühle. Surin: Balint Szabo. Countess: Larissa Diadkova. Lisa: Olga Guryakova. Polina: Varduhi Abrahamyan. Masha: Nona Javakhidze. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris. Children’s choirs of the Hauts-de-Seine and the Opéra National de Paris.

The ever-excellent Opera Cake blog is not alone in noting that at the Paris Opera these days, only reruns of old productions are any good (though not all of those). This is the fourth outing of Lev Dodin’s staging of La Dame de Pique in Paris, and a good one it is (better, thank goodness, than his Salome, which has already been ditched), so it’s surprising it still manages to get booed on opening night, when the man himself is there too boo at. It comes as welcome change, both dramatically and vocally, from the recent serial duds.

It’s easy enough to describe. In the original story, Hermann goes mad at the end and is committed to an asylum. That is Dodin’s cue to set the opera in a madhouse from start to finish, with Hermann either thinking back, or just imagining things. With good actors painstakingly directed (including every member of the chorus with his or her own, individual twitches, grimaces and tics, scratching or clawing, slumping or crawling or dangling of limbs…) it works right through. Of course, with less expert directing, in only one or, at a pinch, two sets, it could have been monumentally boring.

The basic set is, then, the madhouse itself: brick walls painted green to shoulder height and white above, with some high, deep cornices and occasional relief, and one plain hospital bed that stays more or less in the same spot all evening, doubling as Lisa’s bed or the countess’s as Hermann’s imaginings require. The white part of the wall glides back to create a broad ledge for some of the action: the opening scenes in the park, for example; but characters also descend to Hermann’s level. Only at the very end of the second act does the rear wall part to reveal a couple of tall, white, fluted Ionic columns supporting a beam, some white classical statues (including the nude Venus of Moscow) and a white marble staircase to the right, these new spaces serving as the Countess’s rooms (in which she dances a ghostly minuet with Hermann) and her funeral chapel.

The costumes are a superb parade of beautifully-made period clothes (early 19th C) in shades, largely, of white, cream and buff with occasional touches of green, brown and charcoal. The lighting is classic, creamy white from the sides. There are some cuts that upset some people, and there’s some pulling about of the story but not enough to bother me. In the first act, for example, when Tomsky tells the Countess’s tale, she’s on stage to sing her own “quotes”. The pastoral “tableau” in the second act is acted out (as is quiet often the case in modern productions, I think) by Lisa, Hermann and the Countess. Things like that. But with the acting quality we get in this production, it all works very well.

Vocally there were some thrills of a kind that have been rare in my opera-going experience of late. Galuzin, who was in this production form the start at the end of the 90s, now “owns” the part, as (I’m afraid) people say, flawless (as people also say quite a bit) throughout. Guryakova’s voice is harder and less agile than it used to be, understandably, but still what an instrument and what a gorgeous actress. Diadkova is a younger Countess than we sometimes get (not that we get this work often enough) and in full, sumptuous voice, not just chest notes and wobble like some - fun though that can be. Nikitin seemed off peak last night (and looked unhappy at the end) but still put out some great notes. And Tézier, who may not be so well known abroad as his colleagues, was simply marvellous, as those who do know him would expect, as Yeletsky.

I wasn’t as impressed as some of the critics by the orchestra under Dimitri Jurowski - and by the way, this time, just a few seats along in the stalls from where I was last, I could hear it perfectly clearly, such are the quirks of the Bastille acoustics. As usual – maybe more than usual, as this was Tchaikovsky - I’d have liked more energy, more drive; and to my taste he was too cautious with the balance between pit and stage: the orchestra could have played louder and everyone would have made more noise. Here it was quite Scuthbert-like.

But who’s complaining - except about the dreadful audience? It was one of those corporate nights with bankers, their spouses and guests everywhere, slouching, coughing, fidgeting, leaning and whispering, as if at home in front of the TV, and chauffeurs lounging on limousine bonnets outside. But apart from that, I’m very glad I went, for both the work and the performance

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