Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb is wedded to the conceit that only recently, under his tenure, has the Met introduced “theatrical values” into its productions. The Met’s revival last month of a 1995 production of Peter Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades demolished that claim. Russian tenor Vladimir Galouzine gave a smoldering performance as the troubled soldier Gherman, whose growing obsession with gaming destroys his hope for happiness with a young noblewoman. Galouzine brought an Expressionistic intensity to his portrayal, his plastic features shifting in an instant from beseeching erotic desire to insane cunning and greed. The young Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons opened up the wonders of Tchaikovsky’s windswept score, whose capacity to trace the movement of emotion is breathtaking. While Gelb has launched many admirable new initiatives, this unforgettable production was a reminder that drama on the Met’s stage long preceded his arrival.

The still underappreciated Queen of Spades contains what may be the most romantic seduction scene in opera. Lisa, the granddaughter of a countess in late eighteenth-century St. Petersburg, is alone in her bedroom, pouring out her soul to the night. She is engaged to a noble prince who adores her, but she cannot drive from her thoughts the stranger who has been watching her during her walks in the Summer Garden. “Like a fallen angel he is handsome, in his eyes is the fire of glowing passion,” she sings ecstatically to the accompaniment of harp and string arpeggios. Soprano Karita Mattila, in a white nightgown as Lisa, kneels on the floor and arches backward in an anguish of longing. Her cry of ecstasy turns to terror as Gherman, the mysterious “fallen angel,” appears on her balcony. The strings fall to a jittery hush as both stare silently at each other. Gherman has learned only this morning that the unknown beauty with whom he has fallen in love is betrothed to another. He has come to confess his love before leaving Lisa—and possibly life—forever.

Galouzine is no longer young, and he is not slender. But his face has the dangerous sensuality of a dissolute poet’s, with soft lips, penetrating eyes, and a high forehead framed in this production by chestnut curls tied with a black ribbon. His ankle-length flared black coat and boots complete the image of the Byronic hero. Galouzine’s voice is often indistinguishable from a baritone in its velvet darkness and seductive intensity. “If your heart holds a spark of compassion, you will stay and hear my words,” Galouzine implores Mattila, with the desperation of someone with nothing more to lose. He then launches wave after wave of melting romantic appeal, his first soaring forward on a gorgeous ascending violin line. The propulsive string motifs which have accompanied Gherman’s expression of desperate love suddenly break off as Galouzine gazes in anguish at Mattila. “Oh, how lovely you are,” he whispers, and utters what will become his refrain for Lisa: “My beauty, my goddess, my angel!,” his voice almost breaking with suppressed desire. A haunting lament, accompanied by a heartbreaking cello counterpoint, wells up from the stillness. Galouzine, fallen to his knees, begs Mattila to look down from her celestial heights and have pity on “a spirit tortured by love for you.” He notices with amazement that Mattila, who has been beseeching him to leave, is weeping. Galouzine turns away for a moment, but when he turns back to Mattila, a half-smile of erotic mastery plays on his lips as he realizes what her tears mean. He takes her face in his hands and kisses it, as the entire string and brass sections break out in a triumphant major. Ladies, it doesn’t get any better than this.

A crazed flute flourish interrupts this moment of victory, signaling the unexpected arrival of Gherman’s nemesis, Lisa’s grandmother. The ill-tempered Countess, sung with greater than usual power by a still-prime Dolora Zajick, has come to complain about the commotion in Lisa’s bedroom. She soon storms out, not having discovered her granddaughter’s reckless suitor. The final assault on Lisa’s heart begins to a sighing hushed melody in the strings, punctuated with soft timpani rolls. “What do you want from me, madman?” Mattila pleads despairingly. “Decide my fate!” Galouzine commands. “Am I to die or not?” The orchestra takes off at a canter, with the brass modulating upward in higher and higher waves of sound. Unable to resist any longer, Lisa cries out on a single plaintive note: “No! Live!” An even more glorious major-key epiphany of trombones, strings, and timpani accompanies Gherman’s final “My beauty, my goddess, my angel!” as he enfolds Lisa in his arms.

Tchaikovsky and his brother Modest, who wrote the libretto to The Queen of Spades with Peter’s help, have exploited just about every literary romantic convention in this scene. (The far icier original, a story by Pushkin, contained no love interest between Gherman and Lisa; Modest and Peter were absolutely right to add one.) But the episode would not come close to achieving its cathartic effect without Tchaikovsky’s astoundingly dynamic music, sometimes driven forward by the insistent pulse of Tchaikovsky’s ballet writing, other times crushingly melancholic. Tchaikovsky’s intuition for instrumentation—his capacity to particularize each dramatic moment through the voice of a French horn or the timpani—conveys every breath of hope, fear, and desire in this battle of wills. His imagination in embroidering the vocal line with caressing counterpoint from the orchestra is equally uncanny.

Anyone familiar with the snake-charming dotted rhythm in the Fourth Symphony’s opening movement that breaks out first from the clarinets and then from the flutes understands Tchaikovsky’s sinuous way with winds, perhaps the most voluptuous wind writing since Mozart. The Queen of Spades, however, puts the winds to demonic, as well as seductive, use, recalling Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Even before the Countess inauspiciously intrudes into Gherman’s wooing of Lisa, an attentive listener might have guessed that their love was doomed, given the mad clarinet riff that briefly appears out of nowhere when Gherman first takes his stand in Lisa’s bedroom. Throughout the opera, the woodwinds unite Gherman to the Countess, herself associated with mocking bassoons, and signify the growing madness that will destroy him.

In Gherman’s final meeting with Lisa, the impassioned lover has become a distracted maniac. Since their encounter in her bedroom, an idea that his friends have planted in him has become an obsession. Lisa’s grandmother knows a secret technique for winning at the card game faro, Gherman’s cronies say, and he may be the one, they teasingly suggest, to wrest it from her. Gherman initially seizes on the idea as a way of amassing enough money to become a credible suitor for Lisa. He confronts the Countess in her bedroom in a scene of terrifying musical suspense and presses her with such fervor to reveal the three cards of her technique that she dies of a heart attack. The Countess’s ghost then visits a guilt-plagued Gherman in his barracks to disclose the winning formula: “Three, seven, ace.”

Now Lisa has written Gherman to forgive him for her grandmother’s death and to beg him to meet her by a canal at midnight. As Mattila waits anxiously at the water’s edge, Galouzine rushes onto the stage, almost passing her by. His transformation is terrifying: his face contorted in torment, his eyes haunted. Lisa begins a sweet if somewhat conventional Italianate love duet, which Gherman mechanically joins without looking at her. Rather than seizing the musical initiative, as he did in Lisa’s bedroom, Gherman parrots Lisa’s words and melody verbatim, like someone with autism mimicking the outer forms of an emotion that he cannot feel. Only when he announces—to Lisa’s appalled amazement—that they must hurry to the gaming tables do his eyes light up. A smile of mastery again curls over his lips, but this one is directed inward, toward the gold that awaits him, rather than outward, toward the object of erotic passion. His “beauty, goddess, angel” refrain has been replaced by “three, seven, ace,” long adumbrated in the score by a nervous three-note motif. At the gaming tables, Gherman briefly regains his virile self-possession in a jaunty paean to nihilism, which Galouzine sings with sardonic power. Then the final blows of fate strike him down. Galouzine’s achievement in this role is to make you rue the tragedy of losing so musically overwhelming a love to madness.

Peter Mattei as Prince Yeletsky, Lisa’s spurned fiancé, was the perfect foil to Galouzine’s dangerous fire. After Gherman’s conquest of Lisa in her bedroom, the prince meets her at a fancy dress ball. Mattei, the very embodiment of dignity and self-restraint, gently asks Mattila why she is so downcast and tries to take her hand. She immediately withdraws it, asking to be left alone. He reaches out to touch her face; she turns away. As the orchestra slows to a hush, Mattei, majestically tall and elegant in a gold-embossed black jacket and white pants, gazes at her and begins one of the most exquisite arias in the opera repertoire, matched only by Tchaikovsky’s other killer number for low male voice, Gremin’s aria in Eugene Onegin. The prince’s ascending legato melody has minimal orchestral accompaniment until the violins, in a touch of nearly unbearable pathos, come sighing in from above at the third refrain. Rather than rebuking Lisa for her aloofness, the prince grieves for her sorrow in being engaged to a man whom she obviously does not love. Mattei sings with effortless warmth and purity of tone; he ends his aria with a perfectly rounded crescendo on the final note, as Mattila still refuses to meet his glance. He pauses, then strides silently from the stage, his own anguish held down through sheer will.

Lisa is not a happy role, but it is no more tortured than the Janáèek heroines in whom Karita Mattila also specializes. If Mattila is growing somewhat jowly for the ingénues whom she continues to play, the crystalline brilliance of her voice shows no sign of age. Though Mattila’s understanding of Lisa appears to have been infected by her Finnish feminism—she preposterously claimed during a Met radio broadcast interview that only a history of physical or psychological abuse could have induced Lisa to drop Yeletsky in favor of Gherman—Mattila faithfully conveyed Lisa’s innocent distress when her secret love suddenly intrudes into her boudoir, throwing himself at her feet in supplication. In these days of revisionist interpretations, such fidelity to the historical truth of a work cannot be taken for granted.

Dolora Zajick as the Countess was appropriately feisty in swatting away her obsequious attendants and poignant in her nostalgia for her elegant past (the model for “Liaisons” in A Little Night Music). But she did not fully overcome the challenge of silently conveying terror through the entirety of Gherman’s long attempt to force from her the alleged secret of the cards. The Russian baritone Alexey Markov was a debonair Count Tomsky, keeper of the old Countess’s legend, with a powerful but nuanced vocal technique.

The sheer variety of musical styles in The Queen of Spades is stunning. The second act’s court ball and pastoral masque pay loving homage to Mozart, far more gloriously than Tchaikovsky’s kitschy Rococo Variations. Tchaikovsky invokes the effervescent Mozart of the buffa overtures and the Ländler, as well as the triumphal Mozart of the opera seria choruses (though a descending string motif after Gherman shoots himself briefly echoes Don Giovanni’s descent into hell). The Mozart music provides the most sustained period of light (and major keys) in an overwhelmingly dark opera. At the other end of the chronological spectrum, the disorienting syncopations of the Act I storm music anticipate John Adams. The deliriously hypnotic male gambling chorus in the opera’s final scene belies the charge, lodged by a group of Tchaikovsky’s nationalist composer peers, that he was insufficiently “Russian.” The Met choristers for once lived up to their overinflated reputation in the gambling song. But the chaotic entropy of the nannies’ chorus in the opera’s opening scene demonstrated yet again the yawning divide between the chorus’s actual performance and the accolades routinely conferred on it by New York’s civic-booster press corps.

It’s hard to imagine a more satisfying theatrical and musical realization of The Queen of Spades than the Met’s. (For those unfortunate enough to have missed them, Valery Gergiev’s Olympian recording with the Kirov Opera and Orchestra, perfect in every way except occasionally distant sound quality, is a near recompense.) The production is no Zeffirellian extravaganza—indeed, the outer walls of the set could have been designed by Richard Serra—which gives some ground for hope that it will long escape Peter Gelb’s shredder. But the original producer, Elijah Moshinsky, and the current stage director, Peter McClintock, fully accepted the historical world set forth by the music and libretto, including the conventions of male chivalry, female modesty, and aristocratic rank. They thus allowed this overpowering masterpiece to reach its full potential. Conductor Andris Nelsons was involved in every moment of the performance, bringing out the tensions in the score from the first notes and clearly differentiating the instrumental voices. Perhaps the Act II Mozartian overture could have been more charged, but that judgment may simply reflect my preference for the driven “early-music” style—even when it’s ersatz “early music.”

Tchaikovsky wrote to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, that words “always pull music down from the heights,” which may be why, he alleged, his instrumental compositions were “comparatively more successful” than his vocal works. As insightful as Tchaikovsky was about the expression of human feeling, his judgment about his own music may not have been as astute. The Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin arguably represent the pinnacle of his achievement. They contain all his meltingly sensual lyricism without the bombast that can befall his purely orchestral works. The yoking of music to words may have somehow reined in his more flamboyant instincts, while allowing for orchestration so acute that each instrument seems to play a role in the drama. The psychological specificity of the orchestral accompaniment in The Queen of Spades makes one wonder whether all music may be mimetic at its core. The Met’s production of this astoundingly beautiful work was a gift to musical culture.


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