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A Compelling Queen of Spades

The Dresser wonders how many operas running for nearly four hours with two intermissions can sustain a viewer’s attention. On December 6, 2007, the Kirov Opera and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, hosted by the Kennedy Center of Washington, DC, opened an engaging production of Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades.
Company.jpgPhoto by Valentin Baranovsky

Based on Alexander Pushkin’s short story by the same name, the three-act, seven-scene opera with libretto by the composer’s brother Modest Tchaikovsky explores the dual themes of gambling and madness within a context amorous betrayal.


Although the production had some short but dead pauses when the curtains were shut, the orchestra was silent, and the audience sat in dark, largely the show was outstanding. Contributing to the overall enjoyment was its pleasingly fluid concert and stage movement of players directed by Valery Gergiev, Irina Cherednikova’s beautifully detailed costumes, the joyful dancing of company players, and the elegant scenic design by Alexander Orlov accented by curtains so alive that the Dresser thought the fabric had transcended its objectness to become a living character.

Notable singers included Vladimir Galouzine who played the gambling obsessed Herman,
MIKYZ_KirovSpades_138a.jpgPhoto by Valentin Baranovsky
Alexander Gergalov who played Prince Yeletsky, and Evgeny NIkitin who plays Herman’s friend Tomsky. Mlada Khudoley who plays Lisa, the granddaughter of Countess (also known as the Queen of Spades), gave an uneven performance but became progressively better in the December 6 performance by Act III.


While the Dresser extols Galouzine’s emotionally convincing portrayal of Herman, she expected a much younger man in that role. Unlike Mirella Freni, who the Dresser saw as Joan of Arc in the 2005 Washington National Opera production of Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans, Galouzine was not able to evoke the energy or body movements of a young man. For Lisa’s hand, Galouzine as Herman plays the competitor of a younger Gergalov as Prince Yeletsky. This visible age difference did not work to Galouzine’s advantage. When Gergalov as Prince Yeletsky sings to his bride-to-be Lisa, “I love you so. I can’t help myself” and swears he will do anything for her (this aria is beautifully interpreted by Gergalov), the Dresser thought Lisa was a terrible fool. More puzzling was that the Dresser could not detect any emotional reaction from Khudoley as Lisa that would indicate she was listening to the prince, the man she chose to marry but spurns for Herman. Herman brings her down in disgrace because he is obsessed with learning her grandmother’s secret for winning at cards.
Photo by Valentin Baranovsky


One aspect of The Queen of Spades that made it longer in duration is that each act has a dance scene. The pastoral play within Act II was particularly fascinating. The dance play was situated between an audience of opera characters lining the back wall of the stage and the Kennedy Center audience. Curtains in this scene indicated, the Kennedy Center audience was viewing the pastoral as if we were behind stage. Also the costumes and wigs in various shades of blue-green and pale iridescent greens were attractively luxurious. The only dance number that was disappointing occurs in the gambling scene of Act III. The men mimic in a slow tempo Russian dance squats that should be fast, athletic, and energetic. The Dresser says bring on the expected Russian male folk dancers or do slow-mo but puleeze nothing in between.

In "real" time, the countess is an old woman in a wheelchair.
Photo by Valentin Baranovsky

How the stage director Alexander Galibin handles the ghost of the Countess provided an exciting level of engagement for The Dresser. Although we see her shadow projected several times, the Countess is consistently shown starting in Act I as a robot-like figure dressed in a yellow gown with an amazingly tall coiffure. By Act III as Herman’s mind deteriorates into madness, the city landscape has become surreal and almost seems to be a mise-en-scene one would expect from Salvator Dali.


Although the Dresser was blissfully satisfied with the surtitles, her seatmate poet Katherine Young who is conversant with Russian language and culture said there was so much the surtitles did not impart. With her volume of Pushkin in hand, she also said that the opera libretto was markedly different from the short story. For example, Lisa is a much more developed character in the opera. Katherine also found the big carved doors in the Countess’s home and the minimally furnished rooms evocative of Russian showcase castles where Russian royalty entertained guests but never spent one night sleeping in these grand buildings. Therefore the Dresser recommends for added enjoyment that one should invite a Russian to this particular production to understand the grandness of this Kirov offering.

Enid Shomer has written often about gambling. This poem “To Fish, To Remember” echoes some of the emotional load produced in The Queen of Spades.

To Fish, To Remember

Daddy is with me here on the pier
at Cedar Key. The fish strung by their gills,
the shower of water from the bait bucket
brings him back. Night fishing
from Biscayne Bridge. I’m six,
chewed by mosquitoes, sticky with cocoa butter.

Again and again his spinning reel unzips
the black water. He is never pleased,
except by a record haul.
We are the baggage he drags along,
my mother pretending interest
in chum, swivels and lures.

I don’t want to fish. I want to comb
the Saran hair of my Toni doll,
cuddle her as if I know how it’s done.
I am made to stand on the bridge quietly
so as not to scare them away
from the king of fish, the king

of the sport of kings, the king
of ulcers. He needed silence
when we ate, silence when we fished
and the anonymous roar of the track
where he gambled away two businesses.
For years I took his angry looks

for love. For years I avoided water.
Now I bait my hook as he taught me,
pleating the shrimp to conceal the barbs.
I try to forgive him with each fish
I catch, but every time it’s myself
I see on the end of the line—
struggling silently,
intimate with the hook.

by Enid Shomer
from Stalking the Florida Panther

Copyright © 1987 Enid Shomer


Comments (1)

Judy Neri:

Excellent review, especially for the performance aspects. I would have also liked a very short summary of the plot and a tad more about the music.

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