Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Queen of Spades

Personal musical tastes are a mystery. They can be cultivated and acquired, but essentially everyone has their own preferences, including not liking music at all. For reasons I don't even begin to comprehend, Slavic opera stirs my soul. Moussorgsky's "Khovanschina," Prokofiev's "The Fiery Angel," Janacek's "Jenufa" and Smetana's "The Bartered Bride" are just a few of my favorite things, and so is Tchaikovsky's "The Queen of Spades" which is currently playing at the San Francisco Opera.

Even by the lunatic standards of opera narrative, "The Queen of Spades" has a pretty crazy plot, with a gambling-obsessed hero, completely neurotic heroine, and a nasty old Countess who literally haunts the nearly-four-hour piece. The music, however, is astonishing, a mix of Russian High Romantic, Folk Tunes and Mozartean Moments.

The San Francisco Opera has performed the opera a half-dozen times in the last 40 years and have always done themselves proud, with casts that have included Galina Vishnevskaya, Regina Resnick, and Maria Guleghina. In 1982, they premiered a new, home-built production by Robert O'Hearn that was one of the most beautiful productions I've ever seen, and which was still looking good at its revival in 1993. Why they didn't use it again is one of those Pamela Rosenberg mysteries that doesn't bear thinking about.

Unfortunately, this summer's production is a new Eurotrash production from the Welsh National Opera, and the staging, for lack of a better word, sucks. Scene one is set in a public park on the first warm day in St. Petersburg, and the music and libretto paints a brilliantly colored scene. In this production, everyone is dressed in gray, all the better to contrast them with the gray background and gray floor and three gray benches.

Scene two takes place in the heroine's sumptuous upper-class bedroom which has a large window onto the surrounding grounds where the tenor makes a surprise, romantic appearance. In this production, it's a dreary little room, with the heroine and her friends rolling around in ugly undergarments. When the Governess comes in (dressed ridiculously as a 20s vamp complete with cigarette holder) and tells them to stop singing folk tunes because they're upper-class girls, it makes absolutely no sense. As for the hero's entrance, instead of arriving through a French window, he has to crawl across the top of the proscenium and then appear from the wings which is absurd. Then, to fabulously romantic, tormented music, the production has the hero sit down on her bed and look morose while the heroine stands against the wall looking depressed.

The saddest thing about this stupid, gray production is that all the singers in the large cast are uniformly wonderful. The Opera Chorus is probably the best non-Russian ensemble in the world singing in Russian. Best of all, a young Ukranian tenor, Misha Didyk, makes a smashing San Francisco Opera debut as the anti-hero and it would be wonderful to see him in a production that allowed him to actually give a performance.

For an amusing take on this awful production, Tom Reed, a longtime chorister with the company, writes a very funny and very silly take from the inside. Check it out.

And do check out the production of Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte" which is currently in repertory. It's a model of enlightened updating, from 18th century Vienna to just-before-WW1 Monte Carlo, and the singing is mostly heavenly.


Anonymous said...

Well Mike,

You certainly are on a roll! Your book and opera reviews are amusing andthe Hopperesqe photo at the Opera house was especially beautiful. Thanks for keeping us all posted.

the Witch said...

I'm with you, Mike - not a fan of minimalist opera set decoration.

I saw Placido Domingo in Sly as few years back at the NYC's Met. He was awesome but the set was a depressing, monochromatic taupe.
I'm a sucker for Fellini-esque grandeur.

sfmike said...

Dear Witch:

I have no problem with minimalism, and have seen a few great productions over the years that were extremely simple, though at opera house ticket prices people do feel a bit cheated.

What I object to is theatrical stupidity. If the music (and libretto) is "saying" one thing, and the direction is stressing the utter opposite, then it just strikes me as perversity, a way to make a name for oneself at the expense of the opera itself.

What was "Sly," by the way? (And yes, Domingo has always been a truly awesome performer.)

the Witch said...

Sly was a long dormant opera by wolf-Ferrari, based on the character Christopher Sly from Taming of the Shrew. I believe it was Domingo's wife who acted as production designer.

You're right, minimalist isn't necessarily an operatic crime, but stupidity is.

Seeing Fellini sets at the Met molded my young mind, inspired me. I grew up to study interior design, am still in awe, simply delighted by his work.

the Witch said...

Oh my goodness, look what the silly Witch did...

I was speaking of Franco Zeffirelli, my Operatic hero, not Fellini, the celluloid gem.

A sweet little birdie whispered to me of my error... many thanks dear one.