ìYour Queen is trumpedî: Queen of Spades by the Kirov

This is particularly true of the first-rate
troupe of the Kirov Opera that still holds its regular St Petersburg season
in the very building where Tchaikovskyís masterpiece premiered in late
December, 117 years ago. That said, the closing performance of The Queen
of Spades
that the Kirov offered this year at the Kennedy Center is an
experience I would much rather forget. While not horrible, it was
inconsistent, careless, even sloppy ñ a step down from the opening night of
Otello the week before, and a leap down from what this company is
capable of doing with this most St Petersburg-esque of all operas.

As expected, Vladimir Galouzine as Gherman easily out-sang the rest of the
cast. Although he did opt for the lower, less ìinsaneî key of A-major for
the gambling house brindisi, his strong, powerful heldentenor high
register garnered well-deserved applause. So did his acting, particularly in
Act 3 in which Ghermanís fragile psyche is gradually unraveling in front of
our eyes. I would specifically point to an often overlooked duet of Gherman
and besotted Liza at the Winter Canal, here made compelling in its stark
contrast of distraction and devotion. However, there were several moments
when the singer was taking liberties (or was it memory lapses?) with his
part. In the opening arioso, the perfect high note arguably made up for the
missing verb in the text; not so in the finale, when dying Gherman simply
refused to declare how much he loved his ìangelî and left maestro Gergiev
holding the bag (i.e., the score) for a few incomprehensible (without the
vocal line, that is) measures before being saved at last by the final

Mlada Khudoleyís Liza was not particularly impressive in the opening
act: indeed, in Scene 2 she was overshadowed not only by her girlfriend
Pauline, performed by Zlata Bulycheva, but even by her maid (Maria Matveeva).
Still, to her credit, Ms Khudoley improved steadily throughout Act 2, and did
wonderfully in her famous Act 3 Winter Canal aria ñ at least in the lyrical
opening section. No singer, no matter how fabulous, can ever save the
unfortunate F#-minor cabaletta that follows (the reprise of it as a duet is
more unfortunate still, particularly in the poetry department).

Lyubov Sokolova, whom I liked as Emilia in Otello, acquitted
herself admirably as The Countess, with a rich low register and a proud
arrogance of manner. I do regret not having had an opportunity to hear the
illustrious Irina Bogacheva: she was showcased in this, her classic role on
the earlier nights, with Sokolova as the Governess (Olga Savova, Sokolovaís
replacement in that cute cameo role on December 14th, was a regrettable

Outside the fateful triangle of Gherman, Liza, and the ìOld Hag,î
Alexander Gergalovís Yeletsky shone in his Act 2 aria but was nondescript
elsewhere. I liked the gamblers ñ Sergei Semishkurís Chekalinsky, Fedor
Kuznetsovís Narumov, Sergei Skorokhodovís Chaplitsky, and particularly
Yuri Vorobievís jolly and sonorous Surin. Evgenii Nikitin was, overall, a
good Tomsky, although I preferred his highs to his lows, and his gambling
house song to his ballad. I was prejudiced, of course: no one can ever quite
recover from hearing Sergei Leiferkus in this role (see the Kirovís recent
Queen of Spades DVD for details).

Set designer Alexander Orlov offered us a minimalist setting. The single
backdrop of the narrowed stage showed a granite staircase rising toward a
fragment of the Neva river embankment. The details marked the spot as the tip
of the Vasilievsky Island, across the river from the original Winter Canal of
Scene 6, and a place that some St Petersburg dwellers call ìthe end of the
worldî ñ a historically incorrect but strangely appropriate setting for
this symbolist tragedy. The symbolically disinclined Petersburg natives in
the audience ñ and there were many ñ were meanwhile puzzled by the fact
that the staircase led in the wrong direction, so technically the characters
were literally ìwalking on water.î But most of the historical and
geographical details that typically create the pageantry of The Queen of
were either skewed or eliminated. The absence of poor Lizaís
pianoforte, for example, turned the ìrealî period tunes of the Scene 2
duet and Paulineís romance into an unreal, theatrical pretend sung into the
orchestra pit. When the pageantry did appear, it was glaringly self-aware:
the figure of the young Countess haunting each scene dressed in her rococo
splendor; three masked figures in black, revealed in Act 3 to be the
personifications of the three cards; the Act 2 ball turned into a

The theatricality (or perhaps the unreality) of the drama was highlighted
by several tall curtains ñ some black, others white ñ that were used to
separate scenes, characters, and events throughout the opera. A black
curtain, specifically, enlivened the section of the ballroom scene in which
masked Surin and Chekalinsky are haunting the increasingly unstable Gherman
with a fragment of the three card ballad, while literally hiding behind it.
It was also used to great effect in the last act, making its three scenes, in
effect, run continuously, and thus increasing the tension leading towards the
catastrophic dÈnouement. From the point of view of the overall direction and
design, the curtain idea went beyond stage business, of course: it
symbolically represented the operaís crushing contrasts of light and dark,
day and night, life and death, real and surreal. Yet here, as at many points
in this performance, a good idea was betrayed by its slipshod execution: the
fabric was too light, which made the black look gray, and both black and
white look cheap; it divided into unattractive sections, each flapping about
seemingly with a life of its own, and all more Mary Poppins than Countess

The otherworldly green-colored (and much better draped) Act 2 pastoral did
provide a nice contrast to all the black and white: a lively stylization of
French rococo court entertainment, it sported a traditional separation of
singers and their dancing doubles. The scene would have worked even better if
the number of dancers had been curtailed: the endless leaf-decorated fauns
made the stage a little over-crowded. The same can be said for the actual
crowd scenes, particularly the opening Summer Garden party: the choristers in
their elaborate costumes (costume designer Irina Cheredniakova) kept getting
in each otherís way; the striking hats alone required two extra feet of
space around each wearer.

Overall, despite some controversial directing and designing choices, there
were many attractive features in the Kirov production of The Queen of
. Alas, the same cannot be said for the performance ñ at least
not on the night in question. This was probably the sloppiest work I have
ever witnessed from the Kirov, inexcusable in a world-class opera company
that has clearly demonstrated on so many occasions (and to me, as recently as
five days earlier) that it can do better. In Act 1, the whole ensemble seemed
to have forgotten how to count, sliding constantly out of sync with the
orchestra and with each other. Among many ill-fated consequences, this
problem doomed the chilly, barely accompanied quintet in the opening scene
ñ the moment that Russian musicologist Boris Asafiev once called ìthe
nerve centerî of the opera that first and irrevocably ties together
Gherman, Liza, and The Countess. Bad timing also ruined the little duet of
Gherman and Yeletsky in the same scene: as the characters are expressing
directly opposing sentiments in almost the same words but contrasting
rhythmic profiles, its very incongruence, its ìanti-duet-ness,î depends
on perfect, ironclad synchronicity for its effect. Thankfully, things
improved somewhat as the opera progressed: still shaky in Act 2, the timing
was acceptable (yet still not perfect) in Act 3. It must be added that this
criticism applies to the soloists but not to the chorus, as steady and in
sync as it has ever been. The same cannot be said for the orchestra, however:
it did well, but did not impress me as much as it usually does. The bass
clarinet solo in Act 2 Scene 2 and the horn chords that punctuated the
Countessís death scene were two of many examples of imprecision ruining
Tchaikovskyís bone-chilling effects.

So, if you missed the Kirovís Queen of Spades this season, do
not despair. Instead, get yourself their (granted, much more traditional ñ
pianoforte and all) DVD for Christmas and witness Russiaís greatest opera
company do justice to one of Russiaís greatest masterworks.

Olga Haldey

image_description=Queen of Spades
product_title=Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Queen of Spades
The Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C.
product_by=Vladimir Galouzine, Mlada Khudoley, Olga Savova, Evgeny Nikitin, Alexander Gergalov, Sergey Semishkur, Kirov Opera, Valery Gergiev, General Director and Conductor