'Queen of Spades' near to musical perfection


If it had been staged and costumed lavishly enough in an opera house and had the services of a great ballet company at its disposal, the performance of Tchaikovsky's "Queen of Spades" by the National Symphony and its former music director, Mstislav Rostropovich, Saturday evening in the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall might have ranked among the operatic highlights of the late 20th century.

That is, of course, a mighty big if.

We may think of opera as primarily constituted by great voices and music. But even when those things are abundant in so intelligent a semi-staged version as this "Queen of Spades," it still lacks the dramatic force that comes with a fully staged production. And that is particularly true of "Queen of Spades" (also known as "Pique Dame"), the ninth of the composer's 10 operas.

It is a late work -- written in 1890 almost immediately after the Symphony No. 5 -- and is haunted, as his other late works are, by notions of inexorable fate and human vulnerability.

Tchaikovsky and his librettist-brother, Modest, based their opera on Pushkin's short story of the same name and transformed the author's cynical, opportunistic protagonist into a surprisingly sympathetic, self-destructive Tchaikovskyan obsessive, first with his love for Lisa and then with his possession of her grandmother's gambling secret.

But part of what makes Herman -- a neurotic who becomes increasingly demented with every utterance -- so compelling is the way the composer creates an atmosphere that either mirrors his hero's romantic dementia or contrasts it with the elegant world of early 19th-century St. Petersburg. That's impossible to accomplish unless one does it in the theater.

Nevertheless, it's just about impossible to imagine a better performance -- at least musically. In certain works, Rostropovich is as fine a conductor as he is a cellist -- and "The Queen of Spades" is among them. He set the tone in a grandly symphonic manner; he achieved clarity of articulation that made the lively scenes delightful and the stormy ones full of character; and, even more impressively, he inspired the singers to give a vivid sense of theater in their performances.

And his singers, who consisted chiefly of former and current stars of St. Petersburg's Kirov and Moscow's Bolshoi companies, could not have been better. The Kirov's Vladimir Galouzine, who made a strong impression earlier this season at the Met as the Pretender in Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov," served up Herman's great passion and ever-increasing nuttiness with a heroically ringing, but never strident, tenor.

His equally fine Lisa was the Bolshoi's Maria Gavrilova, whose singing was marked by lyrical nuance and feeling and whose soprano voice easily held its own against Galouzine's power.

Mezzo-soprano Larissa Diadkova, one of the biggest hits in the Kirov's recent three-week Russian Opera festival at the Met, again covered herself with glory by making the Countess heart-breakingly moving and spooky. Both baritones -- Alexandre Gergalov's sincere Prince Yeletsky and Sergei Leiferkus' powerfully inflected Tomsky -- were superb. The American mezzo-soprano, Wendy White, contributed a beautifully sung Pauline.

Pub Date: 5/19/98

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