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Life is but a Game

Brown Theater, Wortham Center
04/16/2010 -  & April 18, 24, 28, May 1
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: The Queen of Spades, Op. 68
Vladimir Galouzine (Herman), Tatiana Monogarova (Lisa/Chloe), Judith Forst (The Countess), Vasily Ldayuk (Prince Yeletsky), Maria Markina (Pualine/Daphnis), Phillip A. H. Bevers (Boy Captain), Erik Nelson Erner (Tchekalinsky), Octavio Moreno (Sourin), Tómas Tómasson (Count Tomsky/Plutus), Catherine Martin (The Governess), Rachel Willis-Sørensen (Mascha), Brendan Tuohy (Master of Ceromonies/Tchaplitsky), Michael Sumuel (Narumoff)
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra, Chorus and Children’s Chorus, Richard Bado (chorus master), Karen Reeves (children’s chorus director), Carlo Rizzi (conductor)
Richard Jones (original director), Roy Rallo (revival director), John Macfarlane (set and costume designer), Jennifer Tipton (lighting designer), Green Ginger (puppeteers)

V. Galouzine and J. Forst (© Felix Sanchez)

Houston Grand Opera’s production of Tchaikovsky’s operatic masterpiece is a highlight of the current season. The large, uniformly excellent cast, choruses and orchestra, under the assured direction of Carlo Rizzi, play and sing their hearts out and sweep the listener through the opera’s three lengthy, complex acts, making the opera feel half as long as it really is. While a few of the directorial choices could use some editing out, the majority of the visual concept is entrancing, with some technical stage wizardry that constantly engages the eye.

In a cast chock full of extremely good singers, Vladimir Galouzine stands out. The role of Herman fits him like a glove. He masterfully navigates the character’s dynamic changes with an enormous range of facial expressions, stances and body language, and his stellar acting ability is amplified by an extraordinary vocal conception of the role. The first scene alone shows enormous breadth, from his reticent initial phrases to his manic, thrilling final high B. He receives excellent opportunities for repartee from the other men, notably Tómas Tómasson’s Tomsky, whose chilling retelling of the Countess’ checkered past (“Odnazhdï v Versalye”) is sung in a brilliant balladeer’s fashion.

The opening of the act’s second scene, focusing on the women, is gorgeously sung and staged. Tatiana Monogarova’s Lisa and Maria Markina’s Pauline make a splendid team in the opening duet, their voices perfectly balanced. Monogarova shines in her solo moments. She has a relatively small but creamy and beautiful instrument, which means she can't help but be overpowered by Galouzine when singing in duet with him. The chemistry between the two at the end of the act, when Lisa finally capitulates to Herman’s advances, isn’t entirely believable, but the timing and body language here will likely become more convincing as the opera’s run progresses.

Judith Forst, impressive as a subsidiary character in this season’s Turn of the Screw, returns as a more visceral, commanding force. Her mannerisms as the withering, bitter Countess are spot-on and her rich voice conveys the perfect combination of authority and foreboding that the character requires. Vasily Ladyuk’s “Ya vas lyublyu” is tenderly sung, making one wish he had more to sing throughout the work.

The large ensemble scenes that begin the second and third acts contain some odd staging choices. The partygoers’ random jumping and contorted dancing (think Elaine Boosler from Seinfeld) in Act 2 and the tasteless introduction in Act 3's gambling scene of a transvestite seductress who gets mauled are the most questionable moments, and the likely causes of several “boos” for the production team at the curtain call, but these are far outweighed by some truly stunning visual choices elsewhere. The ingenious puppeteers of Green Ginger, adding a Tim Burton quality that enhances the plot’s descent into madness, hauntingly portray the pastoral play in Act 2. While these miniature creations are convincing, the oversized skeleton meant to represent the ghost of the Countess is more silly than sinister, and one wishes that the puppetry would stay in the make-believe realm of the opera within the opera rather than becoming directly involved in the true plot. The confrontation between Hermann and the Countess is the most disturbing moment. Her demise in a bathtub and his hiding behind and interacting with a hyperbolic portrait of her lost beauty are surreal and highly effective.

The chorus and orchestra bolster the excellent musical production. The men of the chorus really come into their own in the final scene, and the orchestra relishes Tchaikovsk’s ingenious orchestration, the menacing low woodwinds especially effective throughout. Rizzi conducts with excellent momentum and rhythmic security. Overall, this is an excellent production of a nineteenth century operatic masterpiece that is too rarely heard in the US.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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