May 17, 2018


Tchaikovsky: Pique Dame. Oleg Kulko, tenor; Sergei Leiferkus, baritone; Albert Schagidullin, baritone; Viacheslav Voynarovskiy, tenor; Maxim Mikhailov, bass; Felix Livshitz, tenor; Alexey Kanunikov, bass-baritone; Nina Romanova, mezzo-soprano; Karina A. Flores, soprano; Ekaterina Semenchuk, alto; Olga Schalaewa, mezzo-soprano; Lilia Gretsova, soprano; Gary Bertini Israeli Choir, Ankor Choir, and Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. Helicon. $34.99 (3 CDs).

     Audio recordings of operas start with the obvious disadvantage that opera is inherently a multimedia experience. Even in operas where characters stand silently for long periods of time while other characters sing at length – as in much opera seria and much Wagner – the stage setting, the costumes and the overall ambience of the scenes are important for audience impact. And in most operas, there is quite a lot happening on stage: opera is, at its foundation, staged drama with music. In an opera such as Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame, which quite deliberately sets up visual distinctions from scene to scene and uses appearances to underline characters’ personalities and the way they fit or fail to fit into life, the lack of visuals in a CD recording is felt quite acutely. On the other hand, Tchaikovsky’s music at this time – the opera dates to 1890, between his Fifth and Sixth symphonies – is so evocative of multiple emotions that a listener can sit back and simply imagine stage scenery in his or her own mind, allowing the music to carry the story along as it mostly does so well.

     For an audio recording of Pique Dame to be truly successful, the performance must be exemplary, and Vladimir Jurowski’s in Tel Aviv in November 2012, now available on the Helicon label, comes close to that level. This was a concert performance, not a fully staged one, so in fact there is not much lost when hearing the recording at home. And Jurowski has an excellent handle on the music, playing up the pathos (if not quite tragedy) of the story, its peculiar supernatural elements, and the skillful way that librettist Modest Tchaikovsky arranged scenes to give the audience some respite from the darker material through snippets of the everyday. Jurowski is particularly adept at bringing out this contrast – between the very first scene, of children and governesses in the park, for example, and the introduction soon thereafter of doomed and hyper-Romantic protagonist Herman (Oleg Kulko), telling his friends of his intense love for a woman he has never met and whose name he does not know. Similarly, the bright, na├»ve pastoral interlude in Act II (which, it must be said, goes on rather too long – Tchaikovsky seems to be enjoying writing in Mozart’s style too much to let it go) contrasts highly effectively with the following climactic scene in the bedroom of the Countess (Nina Romanova), which brings on the inevitable ending that has loomed from the work’s opening.

     Kulko handles the overdone and not particularly sympathetic role of Herman very well, pulling what emotional connection he can from the role of a protagonist who dooms not only himself but also those around him. And Romanova makes a fine Countess, being if anything a touch too forceful and self-possessed to make it convincing that she would die of fright when threatened by Herman. As Herman’s love interest, Liza, Karina A. Flores is rather bland – but then, so is her character. She is best in her final confrontation with Herman, when her cry that she will yet save him shows that she does have a touch of assertiveness, albeit too late to do any good. A special treat here is Albert Schagidullin as Prince Yeletsky: the way he proffers his love for Liza, who has secretly chosen Herman already, is so sincere that it leaves little doubt about how wrong her decision will turn out to be. The remaining roles are all filled skillfully by the mostly Russian cast, although Sergei Leiferkus’ voice is a touch too thin and at times slightly shaky, making him less than fully effective as Count Tomsky. The choruses and orchestra all sing well and appear to enunciate clearly – but this is where the recording somewhat falls short.

     Pique Dame is sung, as it must be, in Russian. It is only reasonable to expect a recording to offer the libretto in Russian, in transliteration, and in English translation. If this cannot be done in the packaging of the recording itself, for cost reasons, then arranging for the material to be available online is a matter of simple respect for one’s intended audience – in this case, clearly English speakers, since the enclosed booklet is in English only. But Helicon provides nothing at all, and indeed, only 3½ pages of the 44-page booklet are devoted to giving a synopsis and scene summary of the opera. There are 13 pages of photos of the performance – and since this was not a staged production, that just means photos of people wearing suits or dresses. And there are 11 pages of biographies of the performers – part of a recent trend toward “celebritizing” singers and conductors at the expense of giving listeners more information on the music itself. It is possible to get away with this sort of approach with impunity when presenting music that is extremely well-known, such as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. But listeners interested in opera – and, if they also go see it staged, accustomed to the now-omnipresent surtitles translating what is being sung – are surely entitled to expect some way of following along with what they are hearing. Helicon is certainly not alone in neglecting the music this way, but this release is part of an unfortunate trend that is likely, in the long run, to make opera even more of a niche interest than it already is. That would be a real shame, because works such as Pique Dame have enough dramatic elements, enough sad and moving ones, and enough sweeping and beautiful music (including some passages that Tchaikovsky would later use in The Nutcracker and other late works), to appeal to people who would not normally think about hearing opera – if the purveyors of recordings like this one would take the time to present the material a little more thoughtfully.

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