Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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It'll End in Tears

May 02, 2010

Vladimir Galouzine and cast
Photo: Felix Sanchez/HGO 2010

You never know where and when those great opera evenings are going to show up. But they do, sometimes in the most surprising places. On Saturday, I traveled to Houston and caught the last performance in a run of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, an opera I’ve always respected more than I’ve actually enjoyed. Additionally, the production was one I’ve seen before - Richard Jones’ staging for Welsh National Opera that has traveled everywhere including San Francisco in 2004 where I last encountered it. I liked it then, but felt it looked somewhat cheap as well. The production has an aggressive modern look and is mostly known for the opening scene of the third act where Gherman “lies” in a bed which is mounted to a wall creating the illusion that the audience is looking down at him from above. The Countess’ ghost appears as a giant skeleton that rises from beneath the covers and embraces Gherman revealing the secret of the three cards and closing the deal with a kiss. I’d forgotten about the transvestite and the puppet show in the production, but all considering, it’s easy to understand how I may have overlooked them. But tonight something was different than before and the opera seemed entirely new to me connecting in all kinds of ways I'd never seen before.

Somehow on Saturday, everything worked perfectly. The production seemed far more serious and engaging than I remember. Part of this is undoubtedly a much greater commitment to the staging by everyone involved here in Houston, but it also has a lot to do with the best Queen of Spades cast I’ve seen. Gherman was sung by one of my favorites, Vladimir Galouzine, who owns these Russian language tenor roles. (See the Met Opera’s last outing of Prokofiev’s The Gambler.) He’ll be singing the role at the Metropolitan Opera with Karita Mattila next March and if you’re uncertain about going, don’t be. He’s spectacular in this part. The Lisa was another native Russian speaker, Tatiana Monogarova, who has worked all over Europe in recent years and knows this part intimately. The tension created between these two performers was remarkable. The last time I saw Queen of Spades was in New York with Ben Heppner and Maria Guleghina which frankly was a joke compared to this. I hate to admit it, but native speakers can make a very big difference especially if they aren't holding back with a dark and challenging production like this one. The rest of the cast in Houston was solid, including Judith Forst as the Countess and Tomas Tomasson as Count Tomsky. (Houston is a veritable shoo-in for for alliterative casting in 2010.)

In the pit was another surprise, Carlo Rizzi - not a conductor who leaps to mind when you think of Tchaikovsky. But truth be told, he led as warm and edgy a performance of the score as you could want. Jones’ staging is highly kinetic with chorus members running on and off stage repeatedly, and Rizzi has the task of keeping all these people on track no matter where they are. He was in total control throughout. Sadly, this was the last performance of the run, so if you missed it, you’re out of luck. But not entirely, since the performance was recorded for later broadcast on KUHF 88.7 in Houston. Check your listings because it’s one worth hearing.



"Queen of Spades" is a bizarrely great opera, and yes, having Russians in the role makes a huge difference. Actually saw Vishnevskaya singing and Rostropovich conducting the piece in San Francisco right aftr they'd been kicked out of the Soviet Union. Her voice was gone but it didn't matter. It's probably my favorite Russian opera.
I totally love "Queen of Spades," much more than "Onegin," an opera I never want to see again. We had that production, about which I had mixed feelings. The audience LAUGHED at the skeleton on the wall business. And I found the puppets in the ballet scene distracting.
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