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VINE VOICEon 29 July 2013
Here we have a brilliant 1992 recording of the proclaimed Glyndebourne production of 'The Queen of Spades'. For the purposes of his opera Tchaikovsky was wise to make changes to Alexander Pushkin's 1834 original story, in which Herman ends up in a lunatic asylum and Lisa marries an appropriately decent sort of a fellow, the kind of ending which would have considerably diminished the dramatic effect as we now have it in this greatest of the composer's operas. Glyndebourne achieves maximum realism from staging the action within cleverly designed 'skewed' staging which enhances the performance at every turn.

The endearingly staged scene early in the opera, in which boys and girls play at soldiers, aptly illustrates the pathos inherent in the innocence of childhood games. Some of the children return, dressed up as sheep, to perform effectively in the ballet early in Act 2. The children remind us that Herman has all the attributes of a lost child trying to come to terms with an alien environment. The only non-aristocratic officer in his regiment, he suffers from an inferiority complex, which he strives hard to overcome to the detriment of developing his abilities as an officer. His prospects are not helped by his falling in love with the adorable Lisa who is betrothed to Prince Yeletsky.

Whilst watching some of his fellow officers gambling, Herman hears an account of how Lisa's grandmother, the old Countess, won a vast amount of money from having revealed to her the secret formula of three winning cards. From then on Herman becomes obsessed with discovering the formula that he believes will enable him to gamble and win a vast fortune that will enable him to overcome his inferior social status and make him more acceptable as a suitable husband for Lisa. Every step of this drama is superbly presented in this Glyndebourne production, so much so in fact that it overcomes the the often 'shouting style' of singing adopted by Yuri Marusin in the role of Herman. Fortunately, his acting is so good that it almost seems right that the character should adopt a brash, shouting style stance in order to cover up for his inferiority complex.

All told, Herman is not a likeable character, and this work aptly illustrates the complex of how, all too often, intelligent women manage to throw themselves away into liaisons with weak, unstable types of men, chosen by them in preference to much more reliable, steadier characters. Torn within himself with regard to his own sexuality, it really does seem that Tchaikovsky had a deep understanding of the plethora of problems enveloping the whole sphere of human relationships and this great opera is a dramatisation of them.

Apart from the 'shouting' all the singer-actors were excellent in this production, which is an all time great worth watching over and over again. Whereas a great piece of singing in a poorly produced work will not compensate for the bad production, a brilliant production will nearly always overcome faults in one or other of the singers. In any case, the singing needs to be balanced against the acting. Being able to sing and act with equal brilliance is no mean achievement, but this production manages to achieve just that. It's an all time great.
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on 23 February 2017
Like others I found the male lead hard to take as a singer though good as an actor, but it's a beautiful production, hard to imagine a better one, and is still powerful despite its vintage.
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on 15 April 2016
All fine A+
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on 24 February 2015
idem
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on 10 January 2008
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.
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on 10 February 2003
A truly classic production by Vick of this most tempestuous and melodramatic of Tchaikovsky stage works. Even at Glyndebourne it does not get any better than this. We are far from the common fare of European opera houses, with sets that are nauseating as everyday things would seem in a deranged mind like Herman's, and with plenty of visual splendour, like the Technicolor films of yore. The sets take a few minutes to get used to, but compare this to the bland, standardized Kirov production of approximately the same time (also out on DVD), you are bound to prefer this one almost unconditionally. Sadly, Masurin as Herman sounds a bit off, but his portrayal is of staggering emotional appeal. Gustafson's Lisa, predictably, is wonderful and agile, and Palmer's Countess is a tour-de-force into schmaltz and Gothic. Young baritone Kharitonov makes a vivid impression as Yeletsky. Maybe the London Philharmonic brass is not always up to par, but conductor Davis brings out the lyrical best of the orchestra, and the lushness of the strings is a thing to strike you with awe.
Go for it, then.
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