Monday, April 04, 2011

Oh to live in Paris!

Boris Godunov - Metropolitan Opera, 10/30/2010
Pape, Antonenko, Petrenko, Ognovenko, Semenchuk, Nikitin / Smelkov
The Queen of Spades - Metropolitan Opera, 3/11/2011 and 3/21/2011
Galouzine, Mattila, Mattei, Markov, Zajick, Mumford, Kuznetsova / Nelsons
Anacreon (1757) / Pygmalion - Les Arts Florissants, 3/12/2011
Buet, Bayodi-Hirt, de Negri, Lyon / Christie
Lyon, Bayodi-Hirt, de Negri, Thomas / Christie

Though it, like Tchaikovsky's three operatic masterpieces, derives from Pushkin -- in this case a play, not staged in the author's lifetime -- Mussorgsky's famous operatic version of Boris ever threatens to be the most leaden of experiences, what with all the noble droning and Russian self-pity cut only occasionally with low comedy and foreign intrigue. It's up to these peripheral characters to keep the conflict at a boil, and though tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko (the false Dmitri) certainly has personal force as well as vocal, he was let down this season by his uninspired Polish co-conspirators Marina (Ekaterina Semenchuk) and Rangoni (Evgeny Nikitin, last seen as a bizarrely wimpy Orest -- but kudos to him for stepping in to finish the final bit of this run). Rene Pape is a great bass, but ultimately Boris is stuck in his own show.

Tchaikovsky, rather less burdened with having to deliver extra-large doses of Russian-ness in his subjects, took for his most famous operas (Onegin and the just-revived Queen of Spades) Pushkin works set in a less miserably and soulfully "authentic" but just as characteristically Russian milieu: the country and city worlds of the nation's gentry. Before last century's vanguard murdered or exiled them, the inhabitants of this curious universe lived lives that those of us concerned with what is can hardly now credit -- as compatriots (on the one hand) in land and political conditions with those long-suffering Russian masses, while quite of a piece (on the other hand) with their better-remembered western counterparts in basic concerns and occupations. In this universe balls figured largely -- the vital break from boredom, in the country; the scene of things, in the city -- as did other flowers of idleness: promenades, the joys and vapors of romance, gambling, and the one form of approved (and therefore still substantially idle) male work -- commissions in the army. And, from Peter the Great's time: France, and the French language.

Tchaikovsky spun these all into perfect melancholy harmony in his operatic version of Onegin, but the Queen of Spades, composed a dozen years later, is an amazing outburst of contrast. Like Onegin -- and Tchaikovsky himself -- this opera's main character is not quite in tune with the genteel Russian world. Hermann, in fact, is an overt outsider: without particular wealth or position, he stands (literally, in Elijah Moshinsky's excellent production) at this world's fringes, close enough to see and desire but not close enough to partake. He is an officer, but this alone only gets him near enough to the card table to watch his richer (and more careless) comrades wager stakes he can't afford; only lets him walk among the well-dressed idlers, eyeing passing beauties without the introduction to speak to them or the name or money to think of making one his wife.

And yet, in Romantic fashion, the world and he compete -- for Tchaikovsky has lavished his love and genius on both sides. The contest, at first, is for the heart and life of a young woman: Lisa. Though more definitively of the genteel world -- and, in an important sense, its highest flower -- she too finds herself unhappy, dissatisfied and melancholy even in the domestic apotheosis of her engagement to Mr. Perfect (Prince Yeletsky, a character I believe invented by Tchaikovsky) and the homage of her young circle therefor. It's this dissatisfaction that gives Hermann his chance -- but Tchaikovsky meanwhile gives her original setting its full musical due in a series of genre numbers added on to Pushkin's more direct presentation. So we see St. Petersburg society at play in a park, in domesticity at Lisa's (playing both melancholy song and a Russian dance tune for which the girls are immediately reprimanded for being improperly peasant-y), on display at a ball, and -- perhaps most memorably -- enacting its weightless Rococo ideal of love in the long pastoral play-within-the-play entertainment of Act II. As in Verdi's Petersburg-premiered opera (Forza), these genre additions present a certain confident wholeness within which the contrastingly late-Romantic protagonists cannot themselves find peace.

By the time of the ball Lisa has resolved to sacrifice honor and peace for Hermann, but he is already distracted. For perhaps he'd seen her as the lovely distant embodiment of all that his fringe state kept at frustrating distance, but up close Lisa turned out also to be the key to a more tantalizing thread -- perhaps the very basis of her universe's existence: the ur-secret that is her grandmother's knowledge. For it goes back -- as Russian mannered life did itself -- to France and the French court; its outlines give a shape to the darkness that one suspects at the heart of any prominence; and its acquisition offers Hermann the sudden power to overturn his position wholesale, to go from marginal to plausible with one giant haul at the card table, with no risk but his soul. And so it turns out he neither has nor wants some alternate world center -- no idyll of love nor distant doomed kingdom (contrast, say, Forza's Alvaro, who's accompanied by at least the echo of his father's unacquired crown) -- but simply seeks, with all his ever-less-sane might, to get to the center of the social world to which he's resentfully attached. With this revelation the contest is conceded; Hermann's eventual doom is sealed, as is Lisa's. As she says, at her end, she's tied her fate to a demon's. For both of them there is only the death and darkness that pervades the third act.

But for all that Hermann finds the center, and it's hardly less eerie than his own incipient madness. Stealing into the Countess' room with Lisa's key, brings him -- and us -- into her mind writ large: swaddled now in macabre (but catchily-tuned) obsequity, the old Russian noblewoman turns ever toward the past -- her past, in the only place that mattered, or matters... Versailles.

*     *     *

The Met, too, lavished its incomparable resources on the two poles of the opera's being. Tenor Vladimir Galouzine is not uniquely the Met's: he has made a specialty of the main part, and with good reason. Domingo and both the younger and older Heppner have sung well and effectively as Hermann, but never before in this production have all the varied turns and conflicts and shades of Hermann's self been laid out so clearly. Tchaikovsky wrote for the tenor a mighty part, whose terrible compulsive being dominates first Lisa and then the entire opera -- for in Pushkin's story Hermann is taken less seriously: the ironic tone never drops, there is no tragic fate for Lisa, and both apparition and Hermann's desire for money are presented quite matter-of-factly. Galouzine rewarded Tchaikovsky's grander task for the tenor and his madness with full unstinting, un-"managed" vocal and personal force, sonically fresher on the first night than on the second-to-last, but no less impressive on the latter. And yet how far he was from mere barking, how quickly he turned -- in the height of his madness -- to deliver a remarkably lucid (if still mad) and crisp account of his new credo (What is our life? A game!). It wasn't the purely exhilarating thrill of Calleja's Edgardo, but Galouzine's performance was, in its own dark way, as awesome.

But the Met did just as well with the Russian world to which Hermann's fatal pursuit is contrast. The chorus, as it often has under Donald Palumbo, showed itself now to be a great strength -- most of all in the men's prayer at Hermann's final downfall. The supporting cast this time was shockingly well-assembled: not only familiar faces Peter Mattei as Yeletsky and Tamara Mumford as Pauline (and the most earnest and sprightly Daphnis in ages) shone, but also debuting soprano Dina Kuznetsova (Russian by way of Lyric Opera of Chicago's young artists' program), who in nearly stealing the show as Chlöe (!) got me wondering how she hasn't yet been hired for non-cover leads here. Dolora Zajick used her remarkable instrument well to make the Old Countess formidable without going into a parade of tics.

In between is Lisa. In Karita Mattila's hands she is again more vivid and clearly-defined than her previous incarnations in this show (excluding, of course, Mattila herself, though her Lisa was overshadowed at the production's original run by the last bows of another theatrically gifted soprano): restless, perhaps chafing at the limits of a young society girl's world, but visibly pained at having to deceive and abandon the good Yeletsky. One wonders what contrasting path a more naturally placid and outwardly compliant persona might find in the role, though such a performer would have exactly the problems in Lisa's harrowing final scene that Mattila doesn't. Mattila, who almost seems comfortable only in extremity, gives the full measure of Lisa's desperation and desperate hope (including, I think, an echo of the Letter Scene as he first reappears) in the final scene -- by which point she, too, is outside her native social universe, with no alternative but the darkness in which Hermann is already caught.

Andris Nelsons got very good sound and solo playing from the orchestra without pushing tempi or rhythms in any unusual way. But the show was really the grand success of Elijah Moshinsky, whose wonderfully appropriate tableaux at last had the cast to illuminate it beginning to end. From the vast lace backdrop of the girls' gathering to the stylized court uniforms of park and ballroom (except, of course, for poor Hermann) to the frame in which Act II takes place (and Hermann literally walks out of) to the use of space and lighting to make the Countess' room the correlative to her mind to the barracks mad scene, Moshinsky's understanding and use of the opera's structure, contrasts, and themes is exemplary. If Hermann's daemonic presence is Galouzine's, Moshinsky gave him the space to use it -- and the contrasting frame of social order that a Gelb director like Decker would have mangled.

*     *     *

The day after the Queen of Spades began its run, William Christie's Les Arts Florissants presented actual Parisian baroque entertainments at Alice Tully Hall. Composed by Rameau, these little (sub-hour-length) opera-ballet acts are just what you might expect from having seen Tchaikovsky's pastiche: love-plots in neoclassical garb, featuring as many dances and musically interesting mood shifts as possible given the strictly vestigial conflict. (Christie's group offered choreographed entrances and exits in the space before and behind the players, but no actual dancing.) They were also, as one might expect from Christie's previous work, pure joyful delight as performed by young soprano Hanna Bayodi-Hirt and her other clear-toned and expressive colleagues, and even touching within the works' small measure (particularly certain recitatives and instrumental bits). But as refreshing as it is to see the coherently, sophisticatedly, and joyously superficial world that demanded these works conjured again today with such sympathy, I did feel more than one twinge of Lisa-style dissatisfaction with its very perfection, its limitation on sorrow and inelegance. Forget Paris -- let me hear England.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.