Tchaikovsky – Pikovaya Dama (Пиковая дама)
Herman – Dmitry Golovnin
Count Tomsky – Laurent Naouri
Prince Yeletsky – Jacques Imbrailo
Chekalinsky – Alexander Kravets
Surin – Mischa Schelomianski
Narumov – Justin Hopkins
Master of Ceremonies – Maxime Melnik
Countess – Anne Sofie von Otter
Liza – Anna Nechaeva
Polina – Charlotte Hellekant
Governess – Mireille Capelle
Masha/Prilepa – Emma Posman
Milozovor – Charlotte Hellekant
Chœurs d’enfants et de jeunes de la Monnaie, Académie des chœurs de la Monnaie, Chœurs de la Monnaie, Symfonieorkest van de Munt / Nathalie Stutzmann.
Stage director – David Marton.
De Munt – La Monnaie, Brussels, Belgium. Sunday, September 11th, 2022.
With this new production of Pikovaya Dama, postponed due to the plague and today receiving its belated premiere, La Monnaie – De Munt kicked off its 2022 – 23 season. It’s a season that contains a number of Russian operas, as well as Damiano Michieletto’s equally delayed Rosenkavalier, opening next month.
Pikovaya Dama was confided to the stage direction of David Marton. I’ll come straight out and admit that Marton’s staging left me rather perplexed. Pikovaya Dama is a relatively straightforward story, one of high passions, jealousy, and addiction, all underpinned by Tchaikovsky’s glorious score. Yet Marton’s take on it is decidedly different. He appears to set the action in what looks like a university library, sometime in the 1970s (at least this is what Pola Kardum’s costumes suggest). The exception is the Countess’s boudoir, a strikingly designed white and black room. At times, the walls of the library are reversed to show decrepit apartments behind. Perhaps Marton is making a point about the reality of Soviet life, and how reading and dreaming could provide an escape from mundane reality.
The stage pictures were certainly arresting. Marton populated the stage with constant action, including a rather dashing pianist, Alfredo Abbati, who played from a piano located at the centre of the stage, also adding musical accompaniment while joining in with the orchestra in various scenes. Having Abbati dress up as a caveman during the ball scene was definitely eye-catching – as indeed was the crowd hailing the Countess as Catherine the Great, here a dowdy woman in a cardigan carrying a shopping bag.
It led me to ask if this all was a dream, whose dream were we witnessing? Was it a Soviet Tchaikovsky? Or was it actually Herman, perhaps deep in psychosis, unable to discern real from imagined? It’s undoubtedly an interesting take, but one I didn’t leave convinced by. Marton’s approach plays down the human relationships. While both Liza and Herman do give us big volcanic outbursts, it’s difficult to really care about what happens to them, precisely because we don’t get to know them. Perhaps that disorienting effect is precisely what Marton was aiming for. Yet I find it hard not to draw comparison’s with Calixto Bieito’s recent Tristan und Isolde in Vienna, for instance. There, we had a staging that moved away from a linear narrative, but managed to mine the music and really make us feel its effects. The issue with Marton’s approach is that I spent most of the evening trying to piece together the pieces, when actually I might have been better off not trying to make sense of it.
Making her debut in the pit was Nathalie Stutzmann. Her conducting was electrifying. As an experienced singer, one would have expected Stutzmann to bring out those long, soaring lines. But what Stutzmann also brought out was the sheer rhythmic incisiveness of the score – not least in the opening of the scene in the Countess’s boudoir, where the mysterious arching violins were accompanied by the insistent heartbeat of fear. It helped that she had the superlative De Munt – La Monnaie orchestra at her disposal. This is a band at the very top of its game. The quality of the orchestral playing once again confirmed that this is one of the very best opera orchestras in the world. From my seat at the front of the parterre, at the right of the auditorium, the sound was a bit brass-heavy, but that’s because they were effectively sitting in my lap. No doubt that further back in the auditorium, the sound would have been more integrated. Yet it was clear that the strings had a deep-pile carpet of sound, while also having the agility to dispatch the rapid, florid writing with precision. The brass playing was outstanding and the entire band responded as one to Stutzmann’s conducting. Christoph Heil’s choruses were on tremendous form, giving us a wall of sound, rock-solid in tone, with the tuning in that difficult unaccompanied passage for the tenors and basses in the closing scene absolutely spot-on.
Dmitry Golovnin was a dedicated Herman. He was clearly overwhelmed by the public’s highly enthusiastic applause for him during the curtain calls. His is a focused tenor, capable of pouring out tight beams of sound into the auditorium. The top does have a tendency to narrow and tighten, however Golovnin gave so generously of himself in a final act of visceral power. Anna Nechaeva was also a committed Liza. Hers is a bright, yet steely soprano, and she’s also an affecting actor. Her heartfelt Act 3 aria, was dispatched with an ideal sense of resignation, regret, and misplaced hope. The tone does have a tendency to spread when she puts pressure on it, particularly at the top, which meant that intonation also suffered. Still, Nechaeva, is a useful artist. Her Yeletsky was Jacques Imbrailo. His is a bright, boyish baritone, rather narrow in tone for a role that requires a bit more heft. He sang his lovely aria with long, grateful lines, making an effort to caress the language – although the exertion in sustaining and broadening the tone was audible.
It would be wrong to deny that the passage of the years is audible in Anne Sofie von Otter’s mezzo. The registers have seemingly parted company, and the bottom, never the juiciest, now emerges through sheer determination. She did bring genuine personality to the role and was at one with Marton’s vision of it. It did feel, however, that her performance lacked impact dramatically, since she was rather overshadowed by so many other competing visual elements. In the remainder of the cast, Laurent Naouri was an energetic Tomsky, singing his role off the text in a firmly resonant bass. Charlotte Hellekant sang Polina in a generously vibrating, fruity mezzo. The remaining roles reflected the extremely high standards of the house, with a particular mention for Justin Hopkins’ handsome and resounding bass as Narumov.
This was a very different kind of afternoon in the theatre. Musically, it offered multiple rewards, not least in Stutzmann’s conducting, the performances of the house forces, and the dedication of the principals. But Marton’s staging left me perplexed and curiously unfulfilled. Of course, that may well be the point – to simulate the effect of dreams and insanity. It was well received by the public, however. The production team was received with an unfailingly positive ovation from an audience that isn’t usually shy about expressing an opinion. The cheers for the principals, Stutzmann and the orchestra were massive.