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When Pushkin Comes To Shove

Los Angeles
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Music Center
09/04/2001 -  September 7, 10, 13, 16, 19, 22 and 25

Tchaikovsky: Queen of Spades

Conductor ... Valery Gergiev
Director/designer ... Gottfried Pilz
Associate director ... Vera Calabria
Choreographer ... Gustavo Llano
Lighting designer ... Alan Burrett
Los Angeles Opera Chorus Master ... William Vendice
Los Angeles Children's Chorus Director ... Anne Tomlinson

Cast ... Placido Domingo, Galina Gorchakova, Elena Obraztsova, Sergei Leiferkus, Vladimir Chernov, Suzanne Poretsky, Suzanna Guzman, Irina Mataeva, Jonathan Mack, Alexander Vasilyev, Bruce Sledge, James Creswell, Los Angeles Children's Chorus Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Preceded by the national anthem and shouts from the hall of 'Play ball!', Placido Domingo began his regime as Artistic Director of Los Angeles Opera with a violent tale of repression and rage.

Set in the evocative splendor of late 18th century St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky's intense melodrama made an elegant gala audience, caressed by fine fabrics and exuding sex appeal, feel right at home. But if the choice signaled Domingo's determination to place his company at the center of the international operatic scene, the desultory production did not.

Tchaikovsky composed Queen of Spades in 1890, responding to a Pushkin story about Herman, a young army engineer (Domingo) who abuses the love of a young aristocrat (Galina Gorchakova), symbolically murders her corrupt grandmother (Elena Obraztsova), and goes mad. The composer worked with his librettist (his brother Modest) to soften Pushkin's hard edges by creating ambiguity about Herman's motives and, as an odd way of providing moral legitimacy, throwing in two suicides.

The opera mirrors Tchaikovsky's struggle with his sexual identity (he wept when he composed Herman's death scene), and anticipates his own death in 1893. Tchaikovsky's emotional universe, however, is not easily translated into conventional operatic terms (for example, his Sixth Symphony, written in 1893, summarizes the opera's psychological desperation in less than an hour), and Queen has remained a disturbing if powerful enigma.

Appropriately for a company hoping to consolidate a centrist position, if inappropriately for a company hoping to excel in artistic truth, director Gottfried Pilz chose to play the opera straight, restricting the sexual tension to the music alone.

Dressed for most of the night in a large and heavy field coat, Domingo was in only intermittently top vocal form and, despite his enormous charisma and obvious popularity, never grabbed the audience by its collective throat. Above all, he never evinced any kind of personal connection with Herman’s emotional torment, which would seem to be essential in such a profoundly introspective work.

There were gasps, however, when the curtain rose on the steeply-raked stage and speculation during the intermissions touched on whether it was meant to track Herman's mental instability. But, as the evening's three and a half hours wore on, the stage remained a stunning visual sign leading nowhere. Mostly, it was just a space populated either by a few figures swallowed up both as singers and actors, or by the entire troupe moving around uncomfortably, occasionally resorting to Gustavo Llano's mincing choreography.

Gergiev commanded the pit with his usual grand and propulsive style, but the orchestra sounded uncharacteristically tentative. And the cast, although it sang at a uniformly high level, never created the recognizably Russian timbre which would have lent the production the exotic ambience that would have justified singing in a language unintelligible to probably 99% of the audience.

At the final curtain, the gala crowd, primed for success, erupted in applause and gave Domingo and the company a reasonably spontaneous standing ovation.

L.A. opera fans have a lot to look forward to: The Queen of Spades will be the first of eight company premieres this season, including four new productions. And coming down the pipe in 2003 is Los Angeles Opera's first complete Ring cycle, created in collaboration with Industrial Light & Magic and headed for the Shrine Auditorium at a cost of more than $35 million.

Laurence Vittes



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