A Piercing Pique Dame at the Stuttgart Opera

 

Stuttgart, 6th January 2019

Opera in three acts by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Libretto by Modest Tchaikowsky

in Russian with German subtitles

Photo: Staatsoper Stuttgart/Martin Sigmund

The Staatsoper Stuttgarts’s brilliant interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s 1890 opera “Pique Dame” 

or “The Queen of Spades” has worldwide appeal to older as well as younger audiences raised in the shadows of Freud, Hitchcock, Film Noir and Mad Max. The direction by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito removes location from the opulent courts of Catherine the Great’s Russia to the seemly, deteriorating underbelly of the Soviet Union of the 1950ies. Every design element in this milieu conceived by Anna Viebrock describes the bleak interiority of a world in decay, walls with peeling paint, deteriorating stucco, crumbling facades, reminiscent of a city once pristine and affluent juxtaposed against the unfinished backstage like facades visible as the stage rotates.  

 

This revolving stage graphically reveals other elements of the psychic dysfunctionality portrayed in the opera as we voyeuristically observe sexual assignations while also allowing for costume changes and plot development. This is not the worldly court of the Czar, secure with its rules of order and chivalry. Rather, it is the rotting ghetto of prostitutes, crooks, of petty violence and lost souls, of delusion, disassociation and self- destruction. Even the portrayal of the shepherdesses meant to celebrate Lisa’s wedding appears to be acted out and situated in a mental institution which adds to the ghost like, over medicated ambience of their habitat.

 

From the beginning the set reveals a world through Pushkin’s novel with the usual potential for happy endings, requited love and enduring marriage, only to show the impossibility of these outcomes when the protagonists succumb to the bitter realities of obsession, addiction and pathological depravity. The psychological backdrop of the opera only helps the power of Tchaikovsky’s music to dominate especially in the hands of conductor Oksana Lyniv, who leads the Opera Graz, making an immediate impression in her Stuttgart debut. In Tchaikovsky’s prelude to the opera, she brilliantly balances the sweet, lyrical elements that offer love’s hope with the foreboding anomalies in the emotive percussion and brass sections that annunciate the ultimate conclusion of self- destruction and death. Her volume controls should also be acknowledged, that allowed the soloists to sing without screaming their arias. Lise Davidsen who will be singing this role at the Met later this year, walked the tightrope of schizophrenia as a disconnected lover with a beautiful, lyrical tone preparing us for her ultimate departure. Erin Caves as German, appearing in every scene, builds in strength, clarity and resignation as he succumbs to an unsympathetic fate. The exuberant drinking songs that add a comic relief to the overriding pessimistic philosophy of the libretto were a happy, bright spot with joyful execution underlying the excellence of the ensemble. Petr Sokolov as Yeletsky in his role debut is entirely convincing as the clue less yet rejected lover who ends the opera with sweet revenge.

Photo: Staatsoper Stuttgart/Martin Sigmund

Our shining soprano Lise Davidson, who gives her role and house debut as Lisa seemingly has everything to look forward to. She will be wedded to wealthy prince Yeletzky who promises a future of absolute devotion, romantic love and respect, expressed in his unforgettable aria "I love you beyond measure" (Ya vas lyublyu). But turned off by love, stimulated by rejection is the psychological motivation of this psychodrama; all our customary expectations of sweet resolution are overturned, trampled and summarily disregarded as Lisa becomes obsessively infatuated with the moodily reclusive German. In this raw, sexually violent dystopia of isolation and alienation, Erin Caves powerfully portrays the male protagonist German, a man increasingly devoid of human compassion, empathy or consciousness and completely obsessed with the desire for making his fortune and finding nirvana in a 3 card gambling game. The secret formula for winning lies with Lisa’s amoral grandmother the countess, rivetingly presented by distinguished chamber singer Helene Schneidermann. The countess learned her trick by giving sexual favors in her youth to a count, after having lost all her wealth gambling. That Lisa facing true love and happiness instead becomes obsessed with German, who is equally distracted with winning at cards, reveals the psychological disconnect that this opera depicts.

 

Kudos to this exceptional directorial team for so convincingly painting a depraved, bleak world ruled by aimless violence and sexual promiscuity. This modern portrayal in Stuttgart surrounds these characters with a symbolic landscape, costuming and character interaction that visually expresses the complete moral decadence and hopelessness of their predicament. The normal channels of redemption, happiness and fulfillment are no longer available. The reliable solutions of love, family and a functioning society have unfortunately given way to addiction, gambling and random sexuality whose only denouement can be self- annihilation. The boisterous drinking song at the conclusion of the opera “we shall drink and make merry” may be our only solution.

Photo: Staatsoper Stuttgart/Martin Sigmund
All photos: Staatsoper Stuttgart/Martin Sigmund

Conductor   .   Oksana Lyniv

Director   .   Jossi WielerSergio Morabito

Sets, Costumes   .   Anna Viebrock

Lighting   .   Reinhard Traub

Chorus master   .   Manuel Pujol

German   .   Erin Caves

Count Tomsky   .   Gevorg Hakobyan

Prince Yeletzky   .   Petr Sokolow

Tschekalinski   .   Torsten Hofmann

Surin   .   Michael Nagl / David Steffens

Tschaplitzki   .   Christopher Sokolowski

Narumov   .    Jasper Leever

Countess   .   Helene Schneiderman

Lisa   .   Lise Davidsen

Polina   .   Stine Marie Fischer

Gouvernante   .   Anna Buslidze

Mascha   .   Carina Schmieger / Yuko Kakuta