Considered by many - the composer included - Tchaikovsky's greatest opera. the psychologically acute, emotionally intense atmosphere of the melodrama Pique Dame (Queen of Spades) is a world away from the more familiar, gentle (if intensely sad) Eugene Onegin.
The orchestration is extraordinary in the way it picks up the emotional state of the main characters (particularly Lisa and Herman) and adds a powerful propulsive force at the great high points of their development. It is as though they were being driven on by the music, which carries an implied morbidity. Added to that, the use of a number of specific motifs related to, for example, fate and the three cards - which develop as the action progresses - and fantastic work in the strings all combine to make Herman's ultimate destiny - descent from obsession to a deranged paranoid madness - seem inexorable and inevitable.
This 1992 Glyndebourne production with Graham Vick's staging presents all this with ingenious and imaginative clarity. The basic set is modern and abstract, a white rhomboid cube narrowing towards the back of the stage (and thus drawing our eye there). The centre of this cube is dark black with frantic black ink scratches - like an angry Scarfe cartoon - emanating from it. In the elegant first scene, the Summer Gardens, the black space is opened out as a white rhombus containing a drastically wind-swept tree (there is another one on stage). Costumes are refined and beautifully detailed haute bourgeois and military outfits. Here we meet all the protagonists. As the opera progresses the stage space is narrowed down or opened out to reflect the action: Lisa's room and the Countess' room both verge on the claustrophobic, the Ball and Canal scenes are opened out. The setting is identified by minimal but clever use of props or stage furniture: Lisa's room has a bed and harpsichord; the Countess' a large portrait, a chair in the shape of a skeleton and a candelabra; Herman's barracks the same portrait - this time edging further into his room and pushing him back against the wall with its hallucinatory Angel of Death; the canal an iron fence. By the end all perspective is lost: tables are the wrong shape, or placed on the ceiling out of which trees grow. The whole gambling den is lit red and smoky - an anteroom of Hell?
The London Philharmonic conducted by Andrew Davis capture this music's high Romanticism, its sweep, its moments of Rococo pastiche and its churning, driven - sometimes quite disturbing - orchestration superbly. I've been particularly impressed with the violins and the powerful propulsive rhythms they produce at decisive moments of the drama.
Yuri Marusin's performance as Herman is spellbinding; a brilliant portrayal of an outsider desperate to find the means to become his peer's real equal (he's the only officer who isn't also an aristocrat, so getting rich quick is an obvious solution) and thus win the woman he genuinely, passionately loves. This is one of the major changes Tchaikovsky made to Pushkin's original in which Herman is only using Lisa to get to the Countess' secret. Perhaps that is why Herman sees Lisa, not the Countess, as he lays dying? (Another change from Pushkin, where Herman ends his days in an asylum obsessively muttering "Three, seven Ace, three, seven, Queen".) He is occasionally off pitch (flat, particularly towards the end of Act I, Scene 1 but at other points too). I keep listening to this to see if it's off-putting - which it sort of should be - but I find that somehow it enhances the drama of the role. In any case, I think his realisation, with usually brilliant singing across the broadest range of emotions and terrific acting is nonpareil, as Herman becomes increasingly disturbing verging on the hysterical. We still have at least moments of sympathy for him at the bitter end. (In a letter to his brother - and librettist - Modest, Tchaikovsky said that when he wrote the death scene "I was suddenly overcome with such commiseration for Herman that I started to weep terribly.... Never before have I spilled any tears over any of my heroes".) It was important to him that Herman was "real, alive and even likeable". We get that and much more from Marusin.
Nancy Gustafson is a beautiful Lisa, warmly lyrical in her song at the harpsichord, intensely emotional, yearning and powerful in her "O slushai, noch" (with those wonderful violins again!) an impassioned dramatic soprano before her suicide (another Tchaikovsky invention - in the Pushkin she marries a civil servant). Sergei Lieferkus is a suave, compelling Count Tomsky, authoritative but also properly jovial when called for; Dimitry Kharitonov is decorum personified - beautifully toned in his "Ya vas lyublyu, lyublyu bezmerno" but with too much vibrato for my liking. He is, however, winning (if you'll excuse the pun) in the gambling den.
Felicity Palmer's dark, low mezzo Countess is astonishing from first to last, particularly in her bedroom scene and the fatal encounter with Herman, the dark heart of the opera. It is a complete and quite vividly compelling assumption of the role of this "terrible and fascinating" woman - as Herman calls her - and her recollection of the past and singing of the Gretry aria "Je crains de lui parler la nuit... " are beautifully done. This is a mesmerising performance.
This is a truly great recording, intelligently and imaginatively staged, superbly acted and sung (and I include Marusin in that) and fabulously costumed. Some may opt for the Grigorian/Kirov/Gergiev set. You do get the grandiose staging one expects from the Kirov and the sort of detailed and passionate reading Gergiev is so noted for in the orchestra, but you also get a deeply old fashioned, almost anti-theatrical stolid and unimaginative staging. Get the 1993 Philips CD of that instead. This Glyndebourne DVD is stunning in its own right and the best DVD of Pique Dame currently available. I strongly recommend it.