Vilnius City Opera 2018–19 Review: Queen of Spades
Asmik Grigorian Shines In Tchaikovsky’s MasterworkBy Polina Lyapustina
What would you choose: love or game?
This is the central question facing Herman, the protagonist of “The Queen of Spades.” It’s also one that the authors had to confront.
Pushkin wrote his story from a social perspective and analyzed how addiction can ruin lives. So in his analysis, Herman was an addicted player and Liza was just a victim. Meanwhile, Tchaikovsky admitted his strong empathy toward Herman, putting him in a very difficult situation, and also pictured Liza as a strong and very passionate girl.
Dalia Ibelhauptaitė, director of a new Vilnius City Opera production, decided to build up her characters on the basis of the singers.
So that night we faced Herman — not a man, but a poisoned, mad creature. He’s just addicted, it doesn’t even matter to what. You may not yet see it, but he needs to belong to something: either Liza or a Game. But you can see cards in his hands all the time. As performed by Kristian Benedikt, who’s also going to perform Herman at the Met next season, this iteration of the character is definitely a part of Pushkin’s social drama.
However soprano Asmik Grigorian could never be just a victim. So for Pushkin’s Herman, we received Tchaikovsky’s heroine. The soprano turned this character into an amazingly smart and complex personality. It was a passionate and thoughtful performance with every aria becoming a real self-examination and frightening results.
Changing the Story
Both Kristian Benedikt and Asmik Grigorian are highly acclaimed internationally, and both of them know Russian, which is a good basis for a perfect performance of Tchaikovsky’s opera. But there’s a lot of vocal challenges for both of them.
To understand why singing in Russian is so difficult, you should get one very simple fact. The word may end with any sound. So to make it sound complete you should use either intonation or pauses. Intonation works against a melody and vocal line, so singers often opt for pauses. But to execute this strategy without getting into a staccato quality is a serious technical challenge.
Herman’s parts have these extremely difficult lines and tenor needs a really deep and strong voice with good flexibility to perform it, as well as exceptional dramatic skills. Kristian Benedikt made it work. He was not stable emotionally; his portrayal was passionate and lost at the same time. He brought a wonderful dramatic tenor technique to his portrayal of Herman, who was by turns a player, a lover, a madman, a murderer.
As for Grigorian, she was fantastic vocally. She has an intense lirico-spinto soprano that is under perfect control. “I’m scared” was delivered with a correspondingly terrifying sound. But the sad and thought-provoking “It’s an evening” duet brought another vocal quality — light and clean. During the latter “Why these tears?” she exploded with passion and love and you could feel her energy with your skin.
Her singing in “I am worn out by grief” was filled with despair, but also was extreme effortlessness, even though she needed to keep quite a high tessitura.
Grigorian convincingly represented a woman from a dream: smart, strong, beautiful, and passionate. And that was the only fact that was unbelievable. From her first appearance on stage, I never believed that she could commit suicide. Fighting until the end, she fell a victim of her insane lover, though he never got to know it until his own end.
A Gem & Some Singers With Issues
Young Russian baritone Ilya Kutyukhin delivered a remarkable performance as Prince Yeletsky. There was heartfelt sincerity in his “I love you beyond measure.” And he also managed to overcome acoustic issues and filled the hall with his round, truly large, and agile voice.
He showed a perfect control of the dynamics with dramatic crescendos and diminendos. Kutyukhin possessed an innate acting ability as the Prince’s emotions were extremely convincing, and that even made the audience seriously doubt for a moment that he may be left by Liza.
Kostas Smoriginas has played his best card from the very beginning: living, not playing Tomsky in “Once in Versailles (Three Cards).” He delivered an excellent acting performance, but, like any other low voice on this stage, he faced serious acoustic problems. You could see him producing an effortless bold sound but not hear that much.
Congress hall of Vilnius is now a home of Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra, that also performed that night. Its acoustics barely allow low voices to get over the orchestra pit, which is not actually a pit, but just a space in front of the first row. While the soprano to tenor voice range works brilliant in this space, you can only hear the lower voices from the balcony.
This problem also affected Jurgita Adamonytė as Polina. Her voice was hardly heard during the duet with Liza, and did not improve during her signature “Lovely lady friends” romance.
A pretty common issue for VCO productions is that director Dalia Ibelhauptaitė always invites different artists to set the stage and costume design and probably trusts them fully, leaving the style alignment uncontrolled.
This happened with “Queen of Spades” where some visual elements were magnificently created, but juxtaposed with other material that was simply not at the same level of quality.
For example, Juozas Statkevičius did an amazing job creating varied costumes for this production. Every piece has its own character, manifested in colors and shapes. Liza had a different dress, following her mood for almost every scene, while Herman remained the same with his poisoned mind and coal black suit. Every chorus member’s costume was a masterpiece.
But then the production was littered with 3D projections that were not quite as expressive in their design and came off as unfinished.
In the last scene, we saw tables for the card playing sequence which turned into live creatures. They moved and turned the cards over. It was striking and yet the visual language didn’t quite feel cohesive or organized. It all came off as noisy and unbalanced.
A Conductor in a Rush
Another unbalanced aspect of the performance was the work of Maestro Gintaras Rinkevičius. His conducting was sometimes merciless, especially to Herman, whose vocal lines are often amazingly different from the orchestra. But Maestro Rinkevičius chose a really quick tempo for him, literally halving the famous “Life is but a game” in the last act; despite this inconvenience, Benedikt managed it quite well.
That evening seemed to be a card game with a few different card decks. Some of them were for playing, some just to divert attention, some were definitely marked, but everyone was playing with their hearts.
This production was so strange and startlingly passionate, that I would gladly forgive all the noise above it and even weird fact of Liza’s murder, just to keep this image of the emotional Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece in my head.