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TCHAIKOVSKY: Pique Dame

DVD Button Aksenova, Diadkova; Didyk, Markov, Stoyanov; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Jansons. Production: Herheim. C Major 743908 (DVD)/744004 (Blu-ray), 181 mins., subtitles

Composer Ex Machina

Stefan Herheim’s production of Queen of Spades puts Tchaikovsky into the action.

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Licensed to Ilyich: Stoyanov and Aksenova in Amsterdam
© Karl & Monika Forster/De Nationale Opera
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Critics Choice Button 1015 

DIRECTOR STEFAN HERHEIM takes the main themes of Pique Dame (a.k.a. The Queen of Spades)—otherness, obsession and the inevitably of fate—and binds them together into a dizzying, labyrinthine narrative. In his 2016 production for Dutch National Opera, he refocuses Tchaikovsky’s penultimate opera on the composer’s rumored struggle with his sexuality. It’s a bold choice, as are all the directorial choices here, but it’s also strongly executed, fusing the opera’s supernatural elements with its portrayal of the complexity of human desire.

The production begins with Tchaikovsky in a tryst with another man. After the man rejects him, Tchaikovsky takes a drink from a glass of either poisoned or tainted water—historians disagree—and then, in the throes of death, begins to compose his opera. He arbitrates the fates of Gherman, Lisa and the Countess while becoming a character in his own opera. (Tchaikovsky is portrayed by baritone Vladimir Stoyanov, who doubles as Lisa’s betrothed, Prince Yeletsky.) 

Herheim’s production is a web of symbols that link characters and moments to suggest the inexplicable ways in which people’s lives become entangled. Herheim shows us how Tchaikovsky and the three principal characters are connected by their otherness—Gherman as an ethnic German, Lisa as one who rejects the respectable Yeletsky, and the elderly Countess as someone who belongs to another era—as well as by their taboo obsessions with love and avarice. As Tchaikovsky’s creations in this production, the three characters represent three distinct manifestations of the composer’s tortured inner life. Herheim’s production becomes Tchaikovsky’s edge-of-death fantasy, as the composer works through his own struggles, obsessions and conflicting desires for revenge and acceptance. At times, the production is utterly puzzling, but it’s also as riveting as it is thought-provoking. 

As Gherman, Ukrainian tenor Misha Didyk sings with a clarion tone that never tires throughout this vocally and mentally taxing role. Soprano Svetlana Aksenova embodies Lisa’s manic melancholy and alluring innocence, though the delicate power and beauty of her voice are stretched to their limits at both extremes. Veteran mezzo Larissa Diadkova, with her sumptuous voice and committed physicality, is hypnotizing and haunting as the Countess. Likewise, baritone Alexey Markov is a standout in the pivotal role of Count Tomsky. But it’s Stoyanov as Prince Yeletsky who’s most memorable here, as he navigates the intricate psychology of his two roles while singing with a voice of tremendous power and finesse.

Mariss Jansons leads the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in a masterful and dramatic reading of Tchaikovsky’s score, supporting the individuality of Herheim’s production without sacrificing his own interpretation of the work.  —Steven Jude Tietjen 



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