Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Robert Carsen’s Brilliantly Refocused “Pique Dame” – Zurich Opera, May 3, 2014

May 5th, 2014

A traditional “Pique Dame” performance of Tchaikovsky’s  opera “Pique Dame” often has an episodic feel as it wanders through different elements of Saint Petersburg society.

The opera explores the antics of boys playing at soldiering. It notes the opinion of crowds about the changing weather. It focuses on the spontaneous attempts at peasant dancing by young upper class women and to the scolding they receive from their governess for straying from the approved conventions of their class.

The opera attends to the formal dancing that occurs at a fancy-dress ball. It memorializes a dance-play on the theme of a classical myth, acted by nobles posing as shepherds and shepherdesses.

[Below: production designer Robert Carsen, here in Toronto; edited image, based on a publicity photograph.]


Yet, none of this “local color” is part of Aleksandr Pushkin’s short story, from which the opera is derived. The opera’s libretto by Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s brother Modeste, adds characters (including Prince Yeletsky), changes the relationships to each other of Tomsky, Lisa and the Countess, and likewise the ultimate fates of Hermann and Lisa.

However, the short story and the opera are consistent on the obsessions of Hermann, the outsider in a wealthy society in which gambling at cards is a major preoccupation.

The opera’s main concern is how that obsession motivates his actions towards Lisa, a young woman of noble birth with whom there is a mutual attraction and the Countess, known as the Queen of Spades, because she is thought to possess secrets to winning at cards .

 Refocusing “Pique Dame”

Director Robert Carsen’s production, created for the opera companies of Zurich and Strasbourg, has refocused Tchaikovsky’s sprawling work into a tightly constructed examination to how an obsession can lead to madness, wrongful deaths, and suicide.

[Below: Hermann (Aleksandrs Antonenko, front sprawled on floor) has shot himself and the gambling hall has emptied; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Opernhaus Zurich.]


During the opera’s prelude opens, a pantomime of the gamblers whom we know are present at opera’s end, are assembled at the front of the stage, observing the body of Hermann (Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko), dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The men leave the body where it lies, in eerie green lighting that, throughout the production, evokes the green gambling tables, and the opera begins at its traditional beginning (or, almost at the beginning, since the choir-boys’ playing at soldiering that usually begins the opera has been excised.)

The cheerful chorus about the weather that would have followed the boys is transformed into the assembling of men and women in formal dress at their gambling tables.

Then begins the part of the opera in which the stories of Pushkin, the brothers Tchaikovsky and Carsen all agree.

The resurrected Hermann has now assumed his role as the man who spends his evenings watching the card playing, but who never gambles.

We become immediately immersed in the speculation of the gamblers Tschekolinski (Swiss tenor Martin Zysset) and Surin (Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Slawinski) about Hermann’s economic situation.

Hermann’s friend Tomsky (Russian baritone Alexey Markov) asks about the former’s romantic interest in Lisa (Russian soprano Tatiana Monogarova).

Then Tomsky sings about the Countess (German mezzo-soprano Doris Soffel) and her supernatural luck at cards.)

[Below: Lisa (Tatiana Monogorova, front right) and Hermann (Aleksandrs Antonenko, front left), move in their own directions at the gambling hall; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Opernhaus Zurich.]


It is the next scene that confirms that Carsen is interpreting the opera’s story line from the viewpoint of a man whose obsession leads to mental instability, murder and death.

The duet between Monogurova’s Lisa and the Polina of Anna Goryachova takes place in the darkened corner of a room. The light-hearted banter of the girls trying out peasant dance steps ends with Hermann (who has been lurking presence throughou the scene and Lisa intently gaze at one another.

[Below: Lisa (Tatiana Monogorova, center) and Hermann (Aleksandrs Antonenko, center, facing Lisa) have become enamored of one another; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Opernhaus Zurich.]


Monogurova’s Lisa confesses to the audience that since childhood she desired marriage to a man of noble character, but that now that she is engaged to Prince Yeletsky (suavely played by American baritone Brian Mulligan), she feels great anxiety about this seeming perfection.

She obviously is ready to walk on the wild side with Antonenko’s Hermann.

[Below: Hermann (Aleksandrs Antonenko, right) and Lisa (Tatiana Monogorava, left) each expresses their love of the other; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Opernhaus Zurich.]


At first, Hermann had expressed his belief that if he could learn from Lisa’s grandmother, the Countess, the secret of the three cards to which Tomsky referred, he could become rich and make Lisa a happy woman.

But Hermann’s interest in Lisa’s happiness slowly gave way to his obsession at learning the secret of the cards. By the end of the opera’s first part (before the single intermission), Carsen has the audience experiencing Hermann’s hallucinations as the countess’ bed descends from the ceiling as paper money showers onto the gambling hall floor below.

[Below: the Countess (Doris Soffel) prepares to retire for the evening; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Opernhaus Zurich.]


Traditionally, the second half of the opera is where dramatic scenes are piled one on another: Hermann’s encounter in the countess’ bedroom, and the countess being frightened to her death at the sight of Hermann’s pistol.

After the Countess’ death the plot moves swiftly through Hermann’s hallucination of the Countess’ ghost, Lisa’s final scene with Hermann, and the fatal card game in which Prince Yeletsky (“unlucky in love, lucky at cards”) defeats the man who wrecked the Prince’s happiness.

[Below: the Countess (Doris Soffel) prepares for bed; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Operanhaus Zurich.]


In traditional productions, there is a point where Hermann’s madness takes over the production.

But in Carsen’s production, his transformation of the “local color” scenes (eliminating not only the boy’s chorus, but the pastoral Daphnis and Chloe shepherd’s play as well) has the result of the entire opera building inexorably towards the final outcome.

There is no scene in Carsen’s production that does not directly explain how a disheveled man with a pistol came to be lying with a self-inflicted wound on the floor of a gambling hall.

[Below: the ghost of the Countess (Doris Soffel, above) appears to Hermann (Aleksandrs Antonenko, below) with the secret of the three cards; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Opernhaus Zurich.]


The Musical and Dramatic Performance

Czech conductor Jiri Belohlavek, whose work is always of interest [Brilliant Belohlavek Conducts Mattila’s Masterful “Makropulos” – San Francisco Opera, November 28, 2010], led the Philharmonia Zurich.

The announced Hermann had been the Ukrainian tenor Misha Didyk, but illness caused his withdrawal from the first and fourth performances, and then his withdrawal after the fifth performance for the remaining four performances of the run.

[Below: the men of the gambling tables observe the suicide of Hermann (Aleksandrs Antonenko, front, on floor; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph, courtesy of the Opernhaus Zurich.]


Antonenko’s large voice was of the proper weight for the role and had a grittiness to it that was especially evident in the duet with Brian Mulligan’s elegantly smooth baritone, and which served well Antonenko’s characterization of a man on the verge of madness.

Tatiana Monogorova’s Lisa and Doris Soffel’s Countess, under Carsen’s guidance, were fully realized portrayals, both vocally and dramatically, and had the quality of cinematic performances.

The sets were by Carsen’s frequent collaborator, Michael Levine, the costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel.


I recommend the Carsen production with enthusiasm.

For my review of a production of “Pique Dame” of which I did not approve, see: Jones the Ripper’s “Queen of Spades” in S.F. – June 12, 2005.

See also: Rising Stars: An Interview with Brian Mulligan.

Tags: 2005-2016: William's Reviews