As an opera, Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades may be a curate’s egg, but the Met’s decision to revive Elijah Moshinsky’s deftly observed, chocolate box of a production offered a pair of additional draw-cards in the form of the house debuts of conductor Vasily Petrenko and rising star soprano Lise Davidsen. The staging, which 25 years ago was the occasion for both the Met debut of Dmitri Hovorstovsky and the Met farewell of Leonie Rysanek, wears its years lightly, and if pretty costumes and grand scenery are your thing you will have come to the right place. Add to that impressively high musical standards all round and it’s well worth a visit, even if at times it feels like a long evening.

Larissa Diadkova as the Countess and Yusif Eyvazov as Hermann. Photo © Ken Howard / Met Opera

That is not the cast’s fault. Tchaikovsky’s penultimate opera suffers from a weak libretto cobbled together from a far terser Pushkin short story by the composer’s brother Modest. What might otherwise be a pacey, psychological rollercoaster is held back by twee genre scenes – children in the park, court balls, etc. – no doubt meant to offer the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatre crowd the 19th-century equivalent of ‘bang for your buck’. Where interludes in his superior Eugene Onegin draw forth some of Tchaikovsky’s finest music, similar episodes here – especially the tiresome cod-Mozart pastoral – are the score’s weakest elements. It’s a pity, because the complex story of love and obsession at the heart of The Queen of Spades delivers some of Tchaikovsky’s most penetrating and sophisticated examples of operatic musical development. Listen to the broodingly dramatic music that opens each of the first two scenes of the Third Act and you see what the composer was capable of at his very best.

The plot is fairly straightforward. Army officer and misanthropic outsider Hermann (in Pushkin he’s a German, but never clearly identified as such here) has fallen in love with Lisa, the granddaughter of an elderly Countess whose wealth is said to have been acquired at the gambling tables through a mysterious three card trick. Lisa is awkwardly engaged to the Prince Yeletsky but has reciprocal feelings for Hermann who has decided he must learn the Countess’s secret in order to become rich enough to elope with his paramour.

Yusif Eyvazov as Hermann and Lise Davidsen as Lisa. Photo © Ken Howard / Met Opera

When Lisa invites him to a rendezvous in her room, Hermann takes the opportunity to confront the Countess who unfortunately dies of fright. Later, however, her ghost appears to Hermann and reveals the three winning cards. Soon after, Lisa meets Hermann at midnight by the Winter Canal and suggests they leave the city, but when Hermann insists on returning to the gaming tables where he now expects to make his fortune, Lisa drowns herself in despair. Hermann’s plans unravel when the Countess’s final card turns out to have been a vengeful lie. Losing both money and hope he shoots himself and dies.

Moshinsky’s staging places these multiple-locations in Mark Thompson’s picture framed box, whose skewed perspective heightens the sense of Hermann’s mounting mental breakdown. Paul Pyant’s lighting too is suitably atmospheric. Handsomely observed period costumes – we are at the end of the reign of Catherine the Great, who makes a dramatically unnecessary appearance at one point – are subtly toned to complement each scene: blacks, whites and greys against a startling blue sky for the park scene, golds and creams for the ball. It’s certainly eye-catching, though the formality of the frocks sometimes works against the interior passion of the main storyline, and on a couple of occasions singers go through motions whose intentions, in Peter McClintock’s revival staging, are not as clear as once they might have been.

Larissa Diadkova as the Countess, Lise Davidsen as Lisa, Yusif Eyvazov as Hermann and Igor Golovatenko as Prince Yeletsky. Photo © Ken Howard / Met Opera

So, what about those debuts? Both as it turns out are notable. Petrenko is an experienced and talented Tchaikovsky conductor and it shows, most importantly in his ability to handle the almost symphonic undercurrents that drive the nuts and bolts of the musical drama. He is also a most sympathetic accompanist, capable of packing a punch in the big choral numbers and in orchestral effects like the Act I storm, as well as powering through the emotional highpoints of the fevered central romance. Never once, however, does he overpower his singers, ensuring that not a word is lost in the musical maelstrom.

Davidsen has triggered almost feverish anticipation in the lead up to opening night and this certainly justifies her reputation to date. It’s a fabulous instrument, silvery and supple, opening up to a steely, clarion top reminiscent of her compatriot Kirsten Flagstad or more recently of Birgit Nilsson. Like the latter, the lower register occasionally proves more awkward to access, but there’s never an ugly sound and she connects effectively to the text. Not only that, she’s a dramatic risk-taker, something that bodes well for more complex parts. Lisa is a tricky role whose motivations are never set up in the libretto and who only emerges as a three-dimensional character in the final scene. It’s thus a real credit to her that she earns the audience’s sympathy early on and such a thrilling deal of her final soliloquy and the big aria.

Larissa Diadkova as the Countess and Yusif Eyvazov as Hermann. Photo © Ken Howard / Met Opera

Her Hermann is Yusif Eyvazov, originally sharing the role with Aleksanders Antonenko who withdrew at late notice due to “illness” (in fact, Antonenko has struggled in recent years and his regular cancellations suggest a significant vocal problem). The role is perfect for Eyvazov’s bright, edgy tenor, and thanks to Tchaikovsky’s lighter scoring, a sensitive conductor, and Moshinsky’s thoughtful blocking he is far more audible than he was in Turandot earlier in the season. In fact, this is far and away the best I’ve heard him sing, displaying sympathetic lyrical chops and an impassioned delivery. His plea to Lisa in the Act I bedroom scene (Prosti prelestnoe sozdanye) is meltingly delivered, the top notes gleaming throughout. He may not be the most daring of actors, and he does watch the conductor a lot, but it’s hard to imagine the role better sung.

The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, which makes it a pity that the libretto offers none of the secondary characters emotional depth. As Prince Yeletsky, Igor Golovatenko makes another impressive debut. His aria (Ya vas lyublyu) is the show’s finest and displays his steady, bronzed baritone to fine effect. Alexey Markov sings Tomsky’s charming pair of arias with admirable heft. Paul Groves’ smoothly sung Tchekalinsky and Raymond Aceto’s sonorous Sourin are an effective double act.

The Queen of Spades. Photo © Ken Howard / Met Opera

Among the women, Larissa Diadkova is a stern-eyed Countess with daywear that resembles sizable items of furniture and night attire that is pure Cruella de Vil. Still firm of tone, she nails her vocal cameos like the old pro she is. As Pauline, Elena Maximova is a good vocal foil for Davidsen, her wine-dark mezzo blending perfectly in their Act I duet. Mané Galoyan displays a bright, attractive soprano as the shepherdess in the otherwise interminable pastoral. Jill Grove shows off a fine bottom register as the Governess with Leah Hawkins a warm, winning Masha.

Despite the opera’s shortcomings, The Queen of Spades is a must for Tchaikovsky fans, while lovers of fine music-making should catch it for Davidsen, Eyvazov and Petrenko.

The Queen of Spades is at the Metropolitan Opera, New York until December 21.

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