Game of Cards: Pikovaya Dama at the Teatro alla Scala

Tchaikovsky – Pikovaya Dama (Пиковая дама)

Herman – Najmiddin Mavlyanov
Count Tomsky – Roman Burdenko
Prince Yeletsky – Alexey Markov
Chekalinsky – Yevgeny Akimov
Surin – Alexei Botnarciuc
Narumov – Matías Moncada
Master of Ceremonies – Brayan Ávila Martínez
Countess – Julia Gertseva
Liza – Asmik Grigorian
Polina – Elena Maximova
Governess – Olga Savova
Masha/Prilepa – Maria Nazarova
Milozovor – Olga Syniakova

Coro del Teatro all Scala, Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala / Timur Zangiev.
Stage director – Matthias Hartmann.

Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy.  Saturday, March 5th, 2022.

This new production of Pikovaya Dama at the Teatro alla Scala made international headlines, following the decision to fire Valery Gergiev due to his longstanding support of the Russian President and personal refusal to speak out regarding the current invasion of Ukraine.  This of course raises wider questions of why theatres continued to invite Gergiev for years, despite his well-known status within the Russian Federation.  We are now in a time where universities are postponing seminars on Dostoevsky, and opera companies are postponing lectures on Soviet opera.  Yet how can we understand our present, if we don’t understand the past?  I certainly wouldn’t want to live in a world without Tchaikovsky’s music and our world is so much richer for it. 

Photo: © Brescia-Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

The staging was confided to Matthias Hartmann, the most positive aspect of which is that he allowed the narrative to unfold logically.  His was a rather inconsistent staging.  At some points, he furnished the stage with minimal furniture, four large light structures were moved around to create a visual framework.  At others, for example in the Act 2 entertainment or in the closing gambling den scene, the stage was more amply furnished – Act 2 in particular gaining applause from the Scala public.  Costumes (Malte Lübben) were of the period, adding a slightly incongruous touch to the rather harsh visuals with the lightboxes.  The chorus was generally parked unimaginatively at the front.  There were some random gyrations by dancers at some various points, while a person, presumably representing the Comte de Saint-Germain, showed up at various points of the evening to make a point.  That said, Hartmann did give us some memorable stage pictures – the way Liza threw herself into the river was impressively vivid.  Similarly, the Countess’s return from the dead was suitably atmospheric, even if it meant getting temporarily blinded by spotlights directly at the audience. The principals also spent a fair bit of time emoting at the front.  Hartmann’s staging is one that did the job but also felt inconsistent and something of a missed opportunity.

Photo: © Brescia-Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

The evening was led musically by the youthful conductor, Timur Zangiev, who took over tonight for the first performance since Gergiev conducted the premiere last week.  It’s unclear how much time Zangiev had with the orchestra or the singers, but there was much to admire in his reading, combined with signs of tentativeness.  Certainly, there was some ragged attack in the strings at time and tempi throughout the evening felt more cautious than visceral.  Listening to Zangiev felt perhaps like watching someone take the wheel of a Lamborghini for the first time – it was competently driven but also felt safe.  That said, he definitely had a top-quality orchestra at his disposal, pulling out some glowingly luminous tone from the strings – those half lights in the scene in the Countess’s boudoir were wonderfully brought out.  Similarly, we were aware of the constant danger of those insistent triplets under the surface.  And yet, his reading felt contained, lacking in that surging passion that the work ideally requires.  Perhaps, as the run progresses, Zangiev will find more strength and passion in his conducting.  The playing, from a Scala orchestra that has in the last few years been reborn, was glorious. 

Photo: © Brescia-Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

Najmiddin Mavlyanov was an interesting Herman.  At first, it sounded like a mainly lyric instrument being pushed to sing a role much bigger than his current resources could cope with.  Tuning at first was consistently below the note, with the top effortful, seemingly emerging through sheer willpower.  As the evening developed, he found some genuinely warm and affectionate tone in his duets with Liza and tuning improved.  Yet, perhaps due to Hartmann’s direction, I was never completely convinced of Herman’s deadly singlemindedness.  Rather, Mavlyanov’s Herman felt completely reasonable, an everyman doomed to a tragic end who ruined the lives of those around him.  An interesting reading certainly.

Photo: © Brescia-Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

Asmik Grigorian gave us a highly dedicated Liza.  She is a known stage animal, a singing-actor who always gives so generously of herself.  Her compact, focused soprano truly sang the role off the text, using the words to colour the tone most effectively.  Surprisingly, given how acclaimed Grigorian has been in roles such as Chrysothemis and Senta, the top sounded effortful and raw in her closing scene, lacking in spin up there, sounding as if she was singing off the capital rather than the interest.  Perhaps, this was as a result of an unannounced indisposition.  As always, Grigorian was a highly committed stage presence.

Photo: © Brescia-Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

Julia Gertseva was a younger Countess than one often hears.  Her mezzo consists of a rich and fruity bottom, even if the registers don’t sound ideally integrated.  She was a magnetic stage presence.  As Polina, Elena Maximova, brought a very distinctive, generously vibrating orange-toned contralto, but again here, the top lacked body.  As Yeletsky, Alexey Markov of course has that glorious aria, which he sang with an impressively smooth legato, even vibrations, and generosity of tone – although the voice did have a tendency to sit slightly under the note.  Roman Burdenko was an extrovert Tomsky, sung in a firm baritone, even from top to bottom.  The Scala chorus, now under the preparation of Alberto Malazzi following the veteran Bruno Casoni’s retirement, was enthusiastic.  The sopranos were somewhat approximate in places, but the gentlemen offered a massive wall of sound and impressively full-throated singing in the final scene. 

Photo: © Brescia-Amisano / Teatro alla Scala

Tonight was something of a mixed bag.  We were given consistently committed singing and superb orchestral playing, although the conducting was rather tentative while not lacking in insight.  The staging also offered some visual insights, while the direction of the principals and chorus was often perfunctory.  Still, Tchaikovsky’s marvellous score was generally well served and the evening was greeted with a generous ovation by the Scala audience.  Given that the cameras of Rai were present, one can expect a broadcast in due course for those interested in seeing it. 

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