Tuesday, December 4, 2012


Wasn't it Woody Allen who hit the spot with "The trouble with happiness is it can't buy you money!" I love it. Still breaks me up.

It and its variations on a theme certainly broke everyone up in Pique Dame. That's so much of what I love about it. Everyone fails. Hermann loses happiness (and himself) in the search for money. Lisa loses money (and herself) in the search for happiness. The Countess, malcontent that she is, drops dead when confronted with 'show me the money'. And the Prince loses happiness but keeps the money. Etc.

Anyway, there was no trouble with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra's Queen of Spades last Saturday night, the first of two. I found it quite overwhelming and was quietly emotional for all but all of the first half (as played that means to Act II, Sc 1). It was simply the excellence of it that got to me. The cast is here.

I chose to sit rear stalls which was a good call. The sound mix is just about as good as it gets with soloists and big forces - a huge orchestra, sounding wonderful, a huge choir (about 150 excluding the children's choir) sounding wonderful, and a big line up of soloists, a quite exotic line up in fact, sounding wonderful. The acoustic modifications don't look nearly as bad or ticky tacky as they do when looking down form the circle and the sound was very good for whatever reason - the hall is sounding better, the orchestra is sounding better, the seating is better, I was in a better mood without eyes hanging out after a day down the mines ...

And I had grown to love the work enormously having been obsessed with it over the preceding few weeks. It was really Ashkenazy's triumph. The only thing that niggled me was the Countess's great aria when there was maybe room for something rather more French along the lines of lingering warmth and rubato and less chilly Russian. Early settling in moments when it felt like the choir, which sounded alarmingly more philharmonic than chorus at first (strange that) was feeling the air, and some initial uncertainty in the children (always forgiven, it just makes them sound more gorgeously childlike) soon passed and the new sound stage took shape. I now wonder if anything lesser could satisfy.

Great moments were whenever Stuart Skelton was on stage, like all seven scenes. He is a mighty presence and singer and I can't think of anyone anywhere who could match such beauty with such masculinity, not to mention stamina. Boy did he ride the storm (Ashkenazy gave him no special consideration there and he rode it triumphantly). His "beauty, goodness, angel" (how I love that courtship - it is so wild; got Lisa) was spine tingling. And on and on. And the Lisa of Dina Kuznetsova (Francesca di Rimini next year at the Met) was a dream - she seemed always in character, every movement, every head angle, every step with dress held up slightly, and sang like it was her fetish role. It should become same. She was the big surprise of the night.

Andrei Bondarenko's Prince was another sung to perfection. He gets the beautiful aria, so beautiful as to seem, intentionally I'm sure, to be effete beside wild man's engorging swelling almost thrusting "beauty, goodness, angel". He topped it off with a stunning mezza di voce on the big note of his final phrase and an audience otherwise stunned into silence and breathholding burst into applause (the tune helped I think too, doesn't it always).

Jose Carbo had a big sing too as Tomsky and Deborah Humble poured it out with lush velvet ripples as Pauline (another big surprise). There were no weaknesses really.

Characterisation came and went a bit. The native Russians not unexpectedly more at home with the text seemed rather more free to emote and act out. The chair for the Countess's final scene was a great idea, and I only wish the idea had been extended and Stuart had pulled a gun on her. Really. Everything was calling for it, and I thought he would. It would have capped it off, so to speak.

The lighting effects once the old buzzard had croaked were very effective. I'd have preferred the hall darkened more and earlier. It seemed like a work in progress, but very good progress, and maybe just needed more time.

The final mens chorus lament was simply the most beautifully modulated singing you can wish for. And the extras from the chorus, notably Amy Corkery, were splendid.

The curtain calls could have done with a bit more choreography which is hard to do admittedly at the end of a long night on a large but crowded concert platform. The children had long gone, the female choir had gone, there was a long line of soloists, the orchestra was huge, and there was Ashkenazy. It was just that we wanted to say thank you more individually, and especially to the chief, and for a little while longer.

Here speak Mr Ashkenazy and Mr Skelton:

Critical thumbs up are here and here.

It was a fine end to the year (for me).


David said...

Great cast (though Stuart Skelton's Grimes was not quite right for me, he's strong in helden(ish) rep) - and I suppose that must be the first time that Ashkenazy has done the piece? Isn't the Countess's Bedchamber Scene Tchaikovsky's greatest slice of music theatre? No wonder it inspired Janacek.

Did you hear VA's Manfred? One of his specialities. And I see there's more Tchaikovsky to come from him. Lucky you.

wanderer said...

David I am completely besotted with the whole opera at the moment and while I didn't dwell on it, the bedroom scene was the least successful on the concert platform, somehow lacking in dramatic crescendo.

Interesting comment about Skelton's Grimes (ENO I assume). It is carrying him around the world, that role I mean, having just played in Tokyo (p Decker c Armstrong, not my fav) to general acclaim. The voice not quite right, or the stage presence?

I did hear the Manfred which was a bit messy, and can't make it to the final Russian programme what with a big 60th, not mine, but my out-and-proud dear one. We had a guest concertmaster (from Lucerne I'm told) for the PD and I wonder if that made a difference.

David said...

SS couldn't scale it down to the visionary moments like 'Now the Great Bear' and his violence didn't scare me. But then once you've seen Langridge as Grimes it's hard to readjust. But in any case I didn't much care for David Alden's skewed production (though Ed Gardner's conducting was magnificent).

Many happy 60th returns to your significant other, or whatever you call him. I passed the 50 mark this year.

wanderer said...

Kind greetings to 'anything but late for dinner' conveyed although blog land is not on his radar. Ah, 50; I wish!.

I did see Langridge's Aschenbach and Vere (both with Hickox, bless him) so I know what you mean, but Skelton's Grimes here (Wigglesworth/Armfield) was completely convincing, after Vickers more that Peers, whereas I envisage Langridge more the reverse.

Susan Scheid said...

I come over here to find you two conversing and feel I have wandered into a master class in opera (for which I am of course ill-prepared, but nonetheless shall try to soak up what I can). It's thanks to David that I have watched Pique Dame (the Glyndebourne on DVD; David wrote about it, though I can't find the blog post right now). You both make me eager to watch/listen again.

The video clip was marvelous. I was introduced to VA once long ago at Ravinia (in his role as pianist); I adored him even then but had no idea what to say, yet I still remember it lo these many years on. And speaking of many years on: as for fifty, I vaguely recall passing that milestone (congrats to David). I still refuse, now almost 4 years on, to recognize that I truly have passed my 60th (congrats to your mate). Life goes on, and we are grateful for that.

David said...

Well, on a rather personal note, as you (Sue), well know, and wanderer, forgive me for leaving you a bit in the dark about it, I am now - at last - hale and well and glad after a year of troubles to have passed the 50 mark. Life does indeed go on, though I did begin to wonder. 'This too will pass', Dorothy Rowe's wise words, remained carved in stone.

wanderer said...

Susan, it sounds like we both may be 48ers. A good year don't you think? Don't ever make the mistake of conflating my musical illiteracy with David's knowledge, experience and fine judgement. I am woefully musically uneducated, stuck down here with limited exposure, and so desperate to learn that boldness often overrides prudence - nothing ventured nothing gained kind of thing.

David, having wondered often how things were going, you have set my mind somewhat to rest. With some insights into the NHS (though not ever having worked in it) I'd hoped that neither it nor the primary problem would be insurmountable. Carry on in the best British way, you and the diplomate, there's decades more, though one less for Susan and I (not that i ever want to go back).

David said...

Well, Tchaikovsky is one supreme healer (and God knows he had his problems). We're deep into the Sleeping Beauty, what with the new Matthew Bourne production and a fabulous new recording which I've just written about, and it brings as much consolation as Mozart (the more I listen to Tchaik, the more I'm convinced he's on the same level).

And Beauty, of course, is back to back with QoS - lichtAlberich to its schwarz. I've always been fascinated by the fact that 'Vive Henri Quatre', the apotheosis of Beauty, is also sung by the Countess in her bedchamber. And she, of course, could easily be 100 years old...