The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

HGO: Tchaikovsky Queen of Spades - Vladimir Galuzin (Hermann) - features very strong cast and chorus, but other facets weaker - 18.04.10

It is nearly thirty years now since Houston Grand Opera last put on Tchaikovsky’s Pique-Dame, in more traditional setting than now – our first Pique-Dame at the Wortham Center. HGO has brought in numerous good ingredients for success here, in terms of casting Vladimir Galuzin and Judith Forst (Countess), plus for leading parts, three very gifted young singers in their HGO debuts.

In spite of compromises, it is still thrilling to see Galuzin here as Hermann. He was the best Hermann around ten years ago – even with Gregorian, Domingo, and Heppner still around. Early on this past decade, Galuzin bought into temptation of pushing the chest voice through the passaggio that had me fear he would not keep most pitches above it much longer. Final line of the storm scene included the high B, very sinewy, but with still plenty of ring. It was enough alone to bring down the house. A few less challenging high notes later on however got stuck, not quite firmly landing on pitch. His leathery negotiation of the break continues to be worrisome. Hermann for Galuzin clearly is a very driven man - not as something to deliver on the surface, extroverty, but instead deeply from within. There were numerous times throughout suggestions here of the subtlety with which before Galuzin had come to grasp the psychological complexity of Hermann musically so very well.

Galuzin still proved yesterday able to sing softly, albeit less flexibly so than nine years ago, plus less often than he should. Natural darkening of his sound, with age, is expected. Bronze already in the tone before was certainly remindful of Vladimir Atlantov, but there was then better focus to the sound - leaner, more subtly flexible to respond to musical demands. Galuzin then too had a way of taking the introversion of singing Hermann even a step further then than I ever heard from the still estimably fine Atlantov. Dramatically, the well varied neurosis of Hermann, impassioned reach for Lisa, is still gripping today. The look in his eyes during confrontation with the Countess was most fearful - that is, with our inability to see well her face.

Tatiana Monogarova joined Galusin as a fetching, somewhat naïve Lisa. The utter girlishness of Lisa started to characterize Hermann - Galusin chasing her in and out amongst numerous choristers - as something suggesting a pederast. Whether or not on purpose, it put Hermann at risk of being two-dimensional villain instead of the complex anti-hero he really is . Tone quality started off cloudy for Monogarova in opening duet with Pauline; other than strain for several notes up high, everything opened out freely.

Monogarova’s lustrous tone abetted natural curvature of Lisa’s wide-ranging ador very capably and alluringy – even with still slight compromise to legato and slight occlusion around the break. She then came across only slightly heavy for Chloe during the pastourelle. She opted to play Lisa as having difficulty understanding Hermann and as lying tragically outside of abiity to grasp of real situation at hand. Such made for a very involving Lisa in every way.

Galina Gorchakova, less detailed an actress than Monogarova, had a more mature take on Lisa when paired with Galusin in St Petersburg years ago, portraying her as intuitively understanding situation vey well while very affectingly reaching out to Hermann in vain. Monogarova brings to Lisa and Tatiana as well acutely precise nuance in countenance and gesture that is also very compelling.

Icelandic baritone Tomas Tomasson was Tomsky, looking young as the rough-hewn soldier, though a little demurely on purpose toward maintaining good camaraderie with his buddies. A little introversion in acting Tomsky seemed slightly awkward from early on – something unfortunately to explain well later. An oaken, ruddy color to the sound fit close to perfect, with top to freely open out, conspicuously so for the ‘tri karty’ aria in Act One; a little hollowing out from lower end of midrange on down is worrisome though. Lustiness with Tomsky’s witty couplets in the final scene got compromised by excessively annoying nonsensical stage business Tomasson would have done better without.

Vassily Ladyuk was the charming Yeletsky, at least until making lout out of the prince during the final gambling scene, both contrary to the quality of Ladyuk’s voice - with stiff pointing of any irony in playing Yeletsky so unattractively. Before then, most everything went very well for him, with only minor compromise of legato while reaching low rduring his eloquently phrased Second Act romanza. Ladyuk has a very lyric voice, suitable for Mozart and other mostly lyric repertoire, and hopefully much lieder as well in the near future. Maria Markina was the equally lyric Pauline, and very sympathetically sang both her dolorous song in Act One and pastourelle mozartiana.

All HGO studio rank supporting cast members performed very capably, showing what considerable depth HGO still maintains this way. If there was any stand-out, it was Catherine Martin, after having made heavy going of Gianetta in Elixir recently. As Governess, she made scolding of the girls at Lisa's social gathering humorous and warmly inflected - holding everyone’s attention very well, except for all of Lisa’s friends on stage, all looking as though having heard her talk on what is ladylike and what is not too often before. Choral preparation by Richard Bado continued most resolute and dependable with highly supportive childrens’ chorus - notably incisive the boy captain of Phillip Bevers.

Though affected in how she trotted across stage more often than necessary, Judith Forst proved utter paragon of simplicity as the Countess. As successful as much other casting was, this was the one true thoroughly unqualified success for this. The weariness, crankiness, mysterious authority of her lines, infusion of nostalgia through the Gretry aria with which she informed the part put her in great company as close to definitive, barring having Regine Crespin show up instead. Oddly enough, due to a combination of reasons, we unfortunately had at the Wortham an audience impatient with so much music at quiet volume for twenty minutes - for one of the best two scenes in this, Tchaikovsky himself knew. One here had to listen attentively past much coughing, shuffling in one’s seats to be able to hear this scene at all. The Muscovite Venus’s vulnerability in having to face Hermann, half-naked, from a bathtub made for exciting theater - with Forst’s back to us. Here it was hard to argue that the Jones production lacked anything, even with soon before Forst’s feet dangling over foot of her bed while stiff sideways to sing the Gretry aria.

Richard Jones, represented from Welsh National Opera by Roy Rallo here, with Carlo Rizzi at musical helm, however seemed on the same page as Rizzi in one near-fatal way. That is contentment to streamline so much of what got invested in this, and leave it to intermittent insights what Pique-Dame is really about. Except in the most generic sense, there was little in the way of connectivity, except to depend on several fine singing actors to provide it. Good or consistently better than threadbare interest in maintaining strong narrative sense to Pique Dame was lacking. Much built-in contrast between scenes, sound worlds between the dark and sinister and for the intervening rococo pastiche got minimized, for cause of vague intellectualizing.

Carlo Rizzi showed propensity for keeping textures relatively clear, a sensibly forward moving pace through this, a good ache for the grand line on climactic pages, and for final scene, at the casino, ebullient incisiveness against much hard, amplified slamming against gaming table and floor during this scene. A little thinness in quality of the HGO orchestra worked against Rizzi undercutting the score’s dark colors numerous times; so did at times some amplification of voices, creating imbalance with the orchestra, especially at points where screen came down to end several scenes, cutting off most of the stage, to facilitate efficient scene changes. Rizzi was then partly responsible for what resulted in shallow aural perspective quite often.

Up until obvious storm, contrast between differing moods, activity of the summer garden scene got streamlined. A little greater intensity of focus where it should count for something did not quite emerge. The sense should be of Hermann’s perception of all going on about him - of as much we perceive Hermann can at least halfway grasp. The Dostoevskian character of this scene is a obvious to the best interpreters of Pique-Dame, but became thrown off here. Accents for grandiose opening of Act Two came across flaccid. Hint of expressionism in Tchaikovsky’s scoring of first three out of last four scenes got minimized, especially early on during Act Three.

‘Safety first’ in both keeping things constantly moving and ensemble together became password for the barracks scene. Rizzi also denied Monogarova sufficient shape to several particularly expressive lines as Lisa anticipates Hermann’s arrival alongside winter canal. The demonic, obsessive character of Hermann’s drive to get back to the gaming room got undercut by Rizzi’s streamlining of a repeated, insistent descending, rocking figure among lower winds. Not on Rizzi’s part alone, Pique-Dame seemed to stretch out longer than it actually did. It was in understating excessively sharp contrasts in character that this music could be left to meander and then occasionally lose clear sense of direction entirely.

The Richard Jones production features an abstract, expressionist set with stage rear adorned by panels to match. Boudoirs for Lisa and the Countess make it seem that aristocracy has seen better days - perhaps more likely to reflect the Soviet era, replacing different shades of dark gray with a drab green and white. Bed of Hermann and gaming table in Act Three were both steeply raked – with casino in abstract disarray. A panel through ceiling into box for all these scenes served as most likely a skylight, out of which can appear enough of Hermann first of all, then ominously the skeleton of the Countess later – latter symbolizing closing vise of death upon Hermann. Chorus appeared in good mostly black office attire, tending to move in row formation across the stage - most stilted in oval shaped scurrying reception lines for two festive choral passages in Act Two.

Mimetic hand motions, remindful of chorus in Pier’Alli's production of I Puritani at cinemas last fall, were common; especially tiresome was frequent entering and exiting of chorus on and off stage, as to blur line between reality and Hermann’s imagination. This became most distracting – chorus literally quickly jogging past – while Hermann enters embankment scene in Act Three. Individual characters would occasionally be doubled by an extra main character - often rival for attention or affections - walking in precise parallel step behind. Chorus was most effective cowering all about during approach of storm halfway through Act One. Lighting tended to be stark – especially on a silhouetted Hermann to open Act Two and on puppet show for the pastourelle, inoffensively but inertly commenting upon Hermann’s gambling fixation.
Some of all this was interesting, but mostly just to reveal a stylized manner with Queen of Spades. Seeing Lisa as constantly girlishly running, scurrying about, cowering backwards turned silly and banal. Monogarova had plenty of nuance on her own to contribute - and may have rescued her character alone. Skeleton of the Countess looked between redolent of Felix Murnau and of Graham Vick's production of Pique-Dame – perhaps as homage or tribute to what is also a mediocre production of this.

Where the staging really became a cop-out, following odd staging of Lisa’s suicide at ending (non-)embankment scene was the final scene. Tomsky and “his (new) rentboy” engaged for several minutes in messing around; competing then with Tomsky’s couplets was gyrating dance by ‘rent-boy’ accompanying following gambling chorus and to one-up Tomsky, so to speak. Tomsky on the prowl about Hermann’s body, sprawled out against the gambling table provided finishing touch upon new low for malodorous banality five minutes earlier - all lacking sufficient irony and/or suggestive power to have managed to say anything.

Such happening, that this is still Bible Belt to some extent, can so easily provide folks here proof text toward discouraging challenging productions here. We in fact, instead of getting what out there might be truly innovative or insightful, risk stuff that in a chic way cheaply poses as being modern, such as the Annabel Arden Elixir last fall here. This production, even with what intermittent flashes of insight it gave us, helped make Tchaikovsky’s narrative aimlessly meander. One expected more humor, irony in approaching Pique-Dame. Other than for schoolboy-ish Hermann scrambling across card table for the Countess (wearing floozey blonde wig) dealing out cards – humorous indeed – it never became forthcoming.

This Pique-Dame, regardless its accolades from the British press, made for an overall dull afternoon, especially in considering what price tag must accompany the name of Richard Jones. He is credited many years back with a deemed important but overrated Ring at Convent Garden conducted (and despised) by Bernard Haitink, English National Opera Lulu, Shakespearean Verdi at Glyndebourne conducted by Vladimir Jurowski and Munich Lohengrin.

Good for HGO to have picked up instead a Lev Dodin production of this from Paris (now out on dvd) - so darn cute, adorable a Chloe Galuzin is for the pastourelle you want to immediately take him home alone with you to have date any still unattached (or detached) daughter, sister, or niece of yours. The intermezzo (pastourelle) looks better than even what rustics in Midsummer Night’s Dream could have concocted. There is a such a fertile imagination at work here, with Galuzin an alternatively, foppishly cartoon-ish and neurotic Hermann - infused with accents he likely picked up from definitively playing Grishka in Rimsky Korsakov’s City of Kitezh back in the 1990’s. Vera Firsova, a great Ludmilla in Glinka’s opera fifty-plus years back – able to sing rings around Anna Netrebko - would have definitely very willingly stepped aside for Galuzin, could he have been Chloe back then. Such comparison had hardly ever occurred to me before.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home

free counters