Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Opera Note: Met Queen of Spades

They say a Wagner opera is one where you go at six o'clock and sit for three hours and look at your watch and it's 6:15.   Tchaikovsky is not quite the opposite: you can't say that three hours feels like 15 minutes.  But it's easy, if unchallenging listenin': a full evening of Queen of Spades (as, indeed, of Eugene Onegin) passes without strain or discomfort if, perhaps without a lot of challenge or engagement.  Full points to the met for undertaking an ambitious--one might say "lavish" presentation of this signature Russian offering.

The thing about a Tchaikovsky opera is that he had no real flair for drama.  The music flows smoothly and the invention is almost limitless but it's more a series of tableaux than an integrated story.  Well: there is a story--better, perhaps an "anecdote."  But it's wrapped loosely around a succession of set-pieces which form the bulk of the entertainment.  There's an obsessed gambler/protagonist echoing more of Dostoevsky than of Pushkin (i.e., who actually wrote it).  There's a delicate maiden who gets an undocumented extra scene in the third act so as  to hold the audience's attention.  There's an imperious dowager who could easily pass for Lady Bracknell except that there is nothing funny about her.   She dies of a fright in what is, as the guy behind me muttered "has got to be the quickest female death scene in all of opera."

The Met production is well sung all round--males perhaps a bit better than the females tough this might e just a consequence of the writing.  It's a pleasure to look at, although at times too ambitious even for this queen of houses: e.g., the whole chorus is on stage for the ballroom scene, so crowed that they are reduced to talking about dancing, while standing still.   Perhaps the best thing about the piece is the tang of Russian-folk flavor, not just intermittent, but defining the whole piece.  Not at all a waste of time, then, but if you got some free advice from the ghost of the woman you had just frightened to death, you'd think you might know there would be a catch to it.  

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