We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Sad will be the day when Placido Domingo’s voice finally falls apart. Of course, if the 61-year-old tenor’s current vocal health is anything to go by, that day might not dawn for another couple of decades. Opera singers his age just shouldn’t sound this good. What is it? Did he sign a contract with some guy with cloven hooves? Is there a recording of him in his closet that keeps aging while his real voice stays eternally youthful?
Sure, you can nitpick: The upper-middle range is a shade tighter and more nasal now, the most taxing high notes require more effort than they did 30 years ago, and there’s a bit less flexibility in lighter, faster-moving music. But Domingo can still outsing all those musical saplings struggling to rise above the long shadow he casts. The vibrancy and burnished gold in his tone are still there, as are the seamless bel canto line and the ability to infuse any phrase with passion and conviction. Then there’s the increasingly baritonal heft in the lower register and, of course, the sheer size of his sound. Any of these gifts would make Domingo a phenomenon, even if he didn’t possess his remarkable versatility, his scrupulous musicianship, and his chops as an actor.
Tchaikovsky could have written his Pushkin-based opera The Queen of Spades with Domingo in mind. The protagonist, Hermann, is one of those tortured Russian souls who wears his misfortune like a badge and invents more personal misery when things actually start going well for him. He pines to the point of suicide for the love of the higher-born Lisa, who breaks off her engagement to the dashing Prince Yeletsky to run off with him. But that’s not enough to satisfy Hermann. What he really wants to devote his life to is gambling. When it’s revealed that Lisa’s notorious countess grandmother amassed her fortune at the gaming table thanks to her knowledge of three cards that somehow always win, he literally scares the old gal to death in pursuit of her gambling secret. Things, needless to say, spiral downward from there.
Tchaikovsky grounds Hermann’s music—indeed, the entire score—in the kind of brooding, unmistakably Russian lyricism familiar from his late symphonies, shapes it with a Mozartean elegance befitting the opera’s 18th-century setting, and then allows arias and ensembles to blossom forth with an Italianate, almost Verdian passion when emotions hit full boil. It’s the kind of music tailor-made for Domingo the singer, and the demands of Queen as a drama are just as well-suited to Domingo the actor. Those who’ve been frustrated hearing the tenor in such inferior material as Il Guarany and Fedora can revel here in a fine piece of musical drama that allows the WashOp artistic director to create a complex character even as he sings his bloody head off.
Domingo is no longer the romantic young swain suggested by the story (his cadaverous, sunken-eyed makeup makes him look, if anything, even older than his years), but there’s not one moment when Hermann’s character doesn’t register vividly. The guy is one sick bastard right out of the starting gate—rangy, wild-eyed, and more than a little dangerous—but the singer manages to find the character’s pathos and never descends into cheap melodrama. The Act 1 love scene with Lisa is properly unsettling, but it’s also moving. And the quicksilver changes of emotion he brings to his sardonic little aria in the casino are masterfully gauged.
Domingo knows what he’s doing when it comes to casting, too, surrounding himself with a passel of Russians who probably devoured this score with their first bowls of borscht. Chief among them is Sergei Leiferkus, with his high-flying, vividly projected baritone and elegant air. His performance as Count Tomsky (the closest thing Hermann has to a friend) starts the evening on autopilot. But by the time the Mozart-pastiche sequence rolls around in Act 2, he’s firing on all cylinders and gives an immensely entertaining performance as an aristocrat with a playful sense of humor and a taste for life’s guilty pleasures.
Nearly as good vocally is soprano Galina Gorchakova as Lisa. Hers is a tremendous voice, which can go toe-to-toe with Domingo’s in their big duets or pull back to blend hauntingly with Susanna Poretsky’s deep, graceful mezzo in the gorgeous music sung around the piano at the opening of Act 2. Gorchakova’s voice seems to have taken on more weight at the bottom and more edge at the top since her stint in WashOp’s Tosca a few years back, but it’s still an exciting instrument.
Gorchakova doesn’t convince quite so well in her acting choices, though. Lisa is a character who doesn’t have an easy time of it—hell, she winds up hurling herself off a bridge into the Neva—and the prospects of both her pending loveless marriage to the prince and her romantic entanglement with the loopy Hermann keep her perpetually on the edge of an emotional Armageddon. But Gorchakova plays her as a grinning, clueless school kid who’s delighted that two different boys like her and oblivious to the pain she causes the prince. Only in the suicide scene does the full weight of her circumstances appear to register, but by then it’s too late to undo the lightweight impression she made earlier on.
There’s little danger of Elena Obraztsova’s Countess coming off as lightweight. This onetime Carmen and Delilah is now “of an age,” and it’s good to report that her steamrolling chest tones can still flatten the listener all these years later (though, inevitably, her upper register has grown pretty rusty). Her Countess, palsied but imperious, is a wonderful creation, and her death has a creepy, clinically accurate feel to it. It’s too bad that the night I saw the production, baritone Rodney Gilfry was having a rough time of it as Prince Yeletsky. Looking uncharacteristically gaunt and pale under a powdered wig, his face didn’t budge from its hangdog frown all night. More distressing, his usual mahogany tone sounded dry, worn, and surprisingly small, and he found it difficult to sustain notes.
But if Gilfry sounded under the weather, conductor Heinz Fricke has evidently been taking his vitamins. After the ever-so-polite Salome he conducted last month, it’s gratifying to hear his Queen surge boldly from the pit, with silken strings, pungent Slavic brass, and a cresting amplitude that really carries the climactic moments. Most important, there’s none of Fricke’s customary get-to-the-finish-line single-mindedness: This time ’round, he stops to smell the tundra, savoring Tchaikovsky’s exquisitely spun melodies and allowing emotionally fraught moments the necessary time to breathe. Fricke must really love this piece.
Director Peter McClintock shows affection for it as well, though his staging is of the safe-and-comfy variety. The stage pictures are efficient, the character work generally reliable. It all has the whiff of countless Queens past, but McClintock’s literalness at least gets the story told. And, to be fair, there are fresh ideas that bubble through the conventional surface from time to time: The genuinely and quite unexpectedly funny treatment of Act 2’s faux-Mozart divertissement, for example, proves an even stronger counterpoint than usual to the tense personal encounters framing it.
But Queen, more than many operas, benefits from a risk-taking leap of directorial imagination. For the Met’s breathtaking recent production, director Elijah Moshinsky tapped into the opera’s expressionistic vein, showing us the world, in effect, through Hermann’s obsessed eyes. And at the Met, the dead Countess didn’t just materialize behind the wall of the barracks to give Hermann the secret of the three cards, but burst through the floorboards, climbed into Hermann’s tiny army cot, and planted one right on his smacker.
You won’t see such coups de theatre in McClintock’s work here, but perhaps it’s unfair to expect them. McClintock is one of the staff directors at the Met charged with the thankless task of remounting the work of starrier colleagues. A heady list of their productions fills his program bio, giving the impression that their stagings were indeed his own. But while that may smack of the dry cleaner taking credit for the design of the suit, it should be remembered that working closely with directors of Moshinsky’s caliber (or, at the very least, immersing oneself in the minutiae of their finished productions) provides an invaluable education in stagecraft. Of course, McClintock’s ideas are bound to feel received, but they still make for a watchable, coherent show.
Ditto for Robert O’Hearn’s sets and costumes, which hew to the same page-to-the-stage aesthetic and yield elegant, just short of sumptuous interiors and a sensibly chosen palette of fabrics. The designer hits pay dirt in the penultimate scene with his bridge over the Neva, an expanse of floodlit stone set against a threatening, pitch-dark void beyond (praise as always to the resourceful Joan Sullivan-Genthe’s lighting) that dwarfs lost souls Hermann and Lisa just as it should. Elsewhere, though, the designs feel a bit anonymous. Doubtless, many will welcome the absence of Big Gesture visuals, but I found myself yearning for something akin to Mark Thompson’s teetering gilt frame and iconically oversized 19th-century art objects in the Met production, or the vertiginously skewed portals and paint-splattered, black-and-white compositions Richard Hudson created for Glyndebourne in the early ’90s. Those guys got to the troubled heart of this magnificent work. O’Hearn seems to be assembling something durable and reliable to last many seasons into the future.
Kinda like Domingo himself. But not quite: Domingo rarely loses his power to surprise and exhilarate. CP