`Queen of Spades,' powered by Domingo

Opera Review

May 27, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

In Russia, Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin ranks with Shakespeare. In the West, he usually suffers in the translation.

Thanks to several Pushkin-based operas, it is possible for those with little or no exposure to the man's work to get at least a sense of his striking poetry and prose. And thanks especially to Tchaikovsky's Pushkin operas, it is possible to be drawn forcefully into a world of dark passion, tortured love, selfishness and selflessness, high society and empty society.

Even though Tchaikovsky and his brother Modest, who wrote the libretto, were not totally faithful to Pushkin's original 1834 story The Queen of Spades, the opera they fashioned from it is surely every bit as effective in its own way.

Tchaikovsky thought it was his masterpiece, an opinion widely echoed since its 1890 premiere. The Washington Opera's production of The Queen of Spades reconfirms the work's originality and power.

It doesn't hurt to have Placido Domingo in the role of the obsessed gambler Hermann, whose pursuit of an old woman's secret for winning at cards leads to such pain, horror and death.

Unlike Luciano Pavarotti, who has suffered a steady and disheartening decline in artistic imagination and stature, Domingo keeps on astonishing.

While Pavarotti was holed up in a New York hotel a couple weeks ago nursing the flu and causing endless angst over at the Metropolitan Opera, where he was supposed to be singing, it was all business as usual for Domingo in D.C. Since May 11, he has alternated between starring in Queen of Spades and conducting Carmen. And, of course, he's also Washington Opera artistic director (a post he has held since 1996).

Such industriousness would be noteworthy by itself, but there's more to it than that. Domingo is not just doing a very credible job in the pit for Carmen; he's also singing the heck of out Queen of Spades. On Saturday night, the tenor, who added Hermann to his 119 roles a few years ago, used his extraordinarily plangent tones to convey the myriad emotions driving this strange character.

Domingo's acting, too, proved potent, especially in the chilling bed-chamber confrontation with the Countess and in the finale, when Hermann confronts the reality of his own words -- "What is life? A game ... What is certain? Death alone."

Although her pitch occasionally wandered and top notes turned shrill, soprano Galina Gorchakova offered a telling portrait of Lisa, the woman who yields to Hermann only to discover that he isn't playing with a full deck.

Elena Obraztsova inhabited the role of the Countess, down to the trembly head and hands, the penetrating gaze, the world-weary impatience and disdain. (She's sort of a distant, slightly eerie cousin of Madame Armfeldt in Sondheim's A Little Night Music.) The worn edges around the veteran mezzo's voice only enhanced the effect.

Rodney Gilfry's lush baritone and deep-felt phrasing fleshed out Prince Yeletsky, Lisa's jilted fiance. Sergei Leiferkus came up a little short at the end of Tomsky's Act 1 aria, but the baritone otherwise sang with authority and abundant color.

Mezzo-soprano Susanna Poretsky brought a warm tone and sensitive phrasing to the role of Pauline.

The rest of the supporting cast, notably Elena Manistina (Governess) and Corey Evan Rotz (Tchekalinsky), made strong contributions, as did the vividly expressive chorus.

Heinz Fricke's conducting could have used a lot more fire in places, especially the closing, pounding measures of Act 2, but he was attentive enough to the score's lyrical riches. Excepting a few slips in the brass, the orchestra did shining work.

Robert O'Hearn mostly bland and traditional scenery gained considerably from Joan Sullivan-Genthe's superb lighting (the Act 2 bedroom scene had terrific atmosphere).

Director Peter McClintock kept the cast moving smoothly through those sets; even the crowd scenes avoided stiffness. And he made the potentially dull "pastorale" business in the Act 2 ballroom quite charming.

But slow-paced scene changes, most annoyingly in Act 3, took a sizable bite out of the opera's built-in tension.

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