'Queen of Spades': Kirov Plays Almost All the Right Cards

By Joe Banno
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, December 8, 2007

There was a moment early on at Thursday's performance of Tchaikovsky's "The Queen of Spades," in the Kirov Opera's production at the Kennedy Center Opera House, that established the company's unmatchable command of this work. It's the point at the end of the first scene when the soldier Gherman vows to wrest a betting secret from the formidable old Countess so he can make his fortune at the gaming tables. By story's end, his gambling addiction will trump his love for the Countess's granddaughter, Lisa, and destroy all three of them. As Gherman makes his vow, Tchaikovsky stirs up a sudden and violent electrical storm, onstage and in the orchestra. Nature has heard his words -- and isn't happy.

Onstage was tenor-phenomenon Vladimir Galouzine, whose cannon of a voice suggests a dark-hued baritone that blossoms to a full-throated heldentenor on top. That stunning first scene finale established his portrayal of Gherman -- haunted, rangy, more than a little scary and splendidly focused throughout the evening -- and allowed him a first opportunity to open up his voice at full throttle. Thrilling.

Of course, it didn't hurt to have Valery Gergiev urging him on from the pit. Is there any other conductor on the current scene who can unleash the kind of maelstrom in the orchestra we heard here, while keeping internal balances so clear and maintaining such a gorgeous stream of sound? Throughout the four-hour evening -- which, trust me, flew by in the hands of such a master -- Gergiev coaxed his orchestra to playing of warmth, delicacy of phrasing and (always a given with this conductor and orchestra) sheer galvanic power. Galouzine may be a once-in-a-generation wonder, but the musicians in the pit were the ultimate stars of this show, regularly taking one's breath away with the plushness of the strings here or a sublimely turned solo in the winds there.

And Gergiev was careful not to overwhelm the more human-scaled voices in the cast. Evgeny Nikitin and Alexander Gergalov are both fine baritones in the Kirov tradition. But Nikitin lacked the key low notes needed for the character of Tomsky, and Gergalov -- who delivered a handsome account of Prince Yeletsky's heartbreaking Act 2 aria -- simply disappeared vocally when singing alongside Galouzine. Soprano Mlada Khudoley had fewer problems being heard as Lisa, with a voice that melded girlish sweetness and laserlike projection, and opened out well whenever the passion of Tchaikovsky's writing welled up at climactic moments.

She also proved a moving actress through the first part of the evening but unfortunately resorted to stock gestures and campy takes as the opera progressed. Otherwise though, stage director Alexander Galibin drew natural performances from his singers and did a nice job of tempering the old Russian style of crossing down to the footlights, striking a pose and belting out an aria. Much in his staging made good physical sense of the relationships (not least in the fateful Lisa-Gherman meeting in Act 1), and Galibin created some nicely hallucinatory business for the Countess's emergence from her grave. Irina Bogacheva's Countess was a particular bright spot in a cast of fine singing actors, her death scene sung richly and movingly and played with a wonderful mix of old-school-Russian grandness and clinical detail.

Where the production tripped up -- and where the Kirov so often disappoints -- was in its design elements. No doubt the idea of a playing area set between one wall of black doors and another of white doors, with black-and-white curtains swirling about to sweep away, isolate or generally comment on the characters, looked great on paper. In execution, however, Alexander Orlov's set design was all too heavy-handed -- Gherman has "dark" thoughts, so the white curtain behind him noisily snakes around to reveal its black side -- and the constant snagging and sluggish tracking of the curtains climaxed, midway through the opera, in a gigantic rip that left a two-story gap in the billowing white proscenium curtain. (Someone's going fabric shopping this weekend.)

Worse, the curtains looked inelegant, ill-hung and cheap. And as striking as Irina Cherednikova's stylized late-19th-century costumes were, they covered far too schizophrenic a range of palettes -- from black-and-white chic in one scene to Day-Glo neon in another -- fragmenting rather than unifying the production. Again, the operative word was cheap, with flimsy fabrics suggesting that one of the world's great opera companies had been costumed from a summer-stock shop.

But this is one case in which the compelling reasons to experience the Kirov's "Queen of Spades" warrant putting up with the cheesy stagecraft.

The ravishing, wildly inventive score -- with its elements of French grand opera, Italian verismo and Mozartean pastiche, all filtered through the sweep and emotive power of Tchaikovsky at his most inspired -- is one of the jewels of 19th-century music-drama. And nobody does this score full justice quite like the Kirov.

The Queen of Spades will be repeated on Dec. 11 (with a different cast) and on Dec. 14 (with the opening night cast).

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