Monday, February 09, 2009

The Queen

The Onegin revival and the current tenor crisis played out in the past weeks' Lucia remind me of the Met's last Tchaikovsky revival, which was also the last time online wags proclaimed a tenor's career over after a run's first performance.

This was November and December's Queen of Spades, which I'd meant to review at the time. Ben Heppner did crack his way through that first night, and apparently much of the last performance too (this was, unfortunately, the radiocast matinee). But in between he gave a series of intense, impressive performances that were one of the highlights of a flawed revival. Of course, Heppner has had periodic bouts of cracking for ages now -- but his having passed through each and still being able to hit top form should mean rather less worry that any particular such episode of his is career-threatening.

Heppner's Ghermann was most compelling in his discomfort: a man awkwardly disassociated from the social pageant that's the opera's other side before he loses touch with his own humanity. He has, as we saw in Tristan, learned operatic torment, and played out both lighter and more daemonaic forms of it in his body and voice. But the battle for his spirit was not a fair contest.

For who'd lose his head for Maria Guleghina? The Prince of Persia, perhaps, or some other person who crossed one of her frightening manifestations. But in love, as Tchaikovsky's Lisa? As a friend of mine noted, Guleghina here "seemed to only sing with varying degrees of loudness -- not much emotional inflection". That's more or less her method, and it has its glories... but Lisa is all wrong for it. So the lure of love -- life and normality's strongest draw -- was weak in the revival, and the triumph of Ghermann's gambling mania never in doubt (and, of course, less interesting for it).

Still, others in the cast gave the show some moments. The two baritones -- Vladimir Stoyanov as Lisa's jilted upper-class fiancee Yeletsky and Mark Delavan as Ghermann's more worldly army-officer fellow -- made much of their arias, with Delavan's fine form leading me to wonder why he's not getting more big roles instead of, say, the mediocre Juha Uusitalo. (Uusitalo, the centenary Jack Rance!?)

Perhaps most memorable was Felicity Palmer as the Old Countess. The moment -- just before the Grétry air -- when all the tics, business, and nuttiness with which she browbeats her servants, the world, and even herself dropped away in the still, transparent purity of recollection: that was something. Not so much the contribution of Ekaterina Semenchuk, in the double role of Lisa's friend Pauline and "Daphnis" in the show-within-the-show. Not huge assignments, but Olga Borodina made them actually the highlight of the evening a decade ago.

Some good work, but on the whole the opera needs Lisa to succeed as much as Ghermann. Perhaps the next revival -- with, apparently, Karita Mattila and Vladimir Galouzine -- will do the trick.


  1. I remember Delevan in FrOSch, singing Geisterbote, and thinking: wow, he's all the way backstage, here I am in the Dress Circle, and he's THAT loud?

  2. When is mattila doing Queen of Spades???

    That will be potentially epic.

    One day it will be Netrebko's turf (in 15-20 years).

  3. "When is mattila doing Queen of Spades???"

    In two seasons. Hm, looks like I forgot to link Brad Wilber's page on this stuff.

  4. If I recall correctly, Ms. Mattila sang Lisa when the Met debuted the Elijah Moshinsky production of The queen of Spades in 1995. BTW, Heppner was Ghermann. Mr. H was making his debut at the MET as Prince Yeletsky. Leonie Rysanek in her last Met appearance as the old Countess. Time flies.

    I thought there was a PBS broadcast, maybe we will have a DVD in the future.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.