Thursday, 6 October 2011
Rogue cards in the library
It's a good few years since I've tackled a complete opera for Radio 3's Building a Library. Yet having handled two Russian greats already - Eugene Onegin, headlined with the old Khaikin version, and Boris Godunov, crowned by Abbado - I jumped at the chance to run a relatively small gamut of available recordings of Tchaikovsky's 'masterpiece of horror' (as Janacek called it) The Queen of Spades. Pikovaya Dama is, of course, the proper alternative title; I make no bones about redisplaying the frontispiece of the precious old vocal score I brought back from Petersburg.
It's such a baggy operatic monster, at close on three hours, and yet I've come to love every jot and tittle of the Mozartian laciness Tchaikovsky weaves in between the musical-theatrical fibre true to Pushkin's short story. Yet that makes it devilish hard to illustrate. I must have had examples and script at about the hour-long mark, and never did quite whittle them down to the requisite 45 minutes (normally, you'll have to believe me, orchestral works fit the formula very well by the time I arrive in the studio). With the trusted help of that most collegial producer Kevin Bee, I think we've got it down to 48.
But what casualties! I can't tell you anything about the trajectory until the broadcast's aired on Saturday morning - now available (9/10) on the iplayer 'listen again' facility for the next six days, but I can publicly lament the passing of snippets featuring Olga Borodina (Paulina is just TOO incidental a character), Alexey Ivanov's Tomsky and Pavel Lisitsian's Yeletsky. Inevitable we had to let pass all but a sliver of the Mozartian divertissement in Act 2, and I couldn't really show much of what Tchaikovsky so fabulously does, proto-Stravinsky-wise, with selective wind ensembles for his recitatives.
Here's a bit of side-tracking atonement, then. First, that deliberately rather frigid party chorus launching the ball scene in Act 2, and set to a Derzhavin text, simply because it gives you a chance to see Richard Hudson's set - curiously, the masterly scene of Hermann's scaring the Countess to death doesn't seem to be on YouTube - and also because the diplo-mate is, ahem, rather prominent going through the dance motions (clearly Graham Vick WANTED him to be at the front of the stage, and he does look dashing in his uniform, though the moustache doesn't inflame my desire). Even so, what an odd number for Arthaus to choose as the trailer for their DVD.
Though Building a Library is essentially about sound rather than sound-and-vision, Yuri Marusin and Felicity Palmer DO get a look-in on Saturday.
I lamented the absence of any film of Richard Jones's superlative vision, originally staged for Welsh National Opera. Yet there on YouTube are little one-minute snippets of when it resurfaced at Houston Grand Opera in 2010. Jones's greatest feat was to make ALL of the party creepy-interesting (I'll never forget the way Hermann puppet-masters Lisa while she's trying to listen to Yeletsky's aria). His solution to the Mozartian interlude-pastoral of the faithful shepherdess - which CDs reveal as interminable only if the conductor doesn't keep it lively - was pure genius:
So off with you to watch the Glyndebourne DVD - or indeed the superb film of the original story with Anton Walbrook and Edith Evans.
Alternatively you could always book a weekend in Leeds to catch Neil Bartlett's Opera North production that's opening soon (I found his Snape Maltings shoestring approach to Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, which I caught a few years ago because I was giving a talk before it, really inventive). Worth seeing especially, I'm guessing, for a rare chance to see the glorious Orla Boylan as Lisa; when did we last see her in London - as Tatyana or Sieglinde at ENO, it must have been, and how long ago was that?
Some years since we met at Glyndebourne to record an interview about The Bartered Bride - Orla remembered the year exactly - I was delighted to chat to her again as we quaffed champagne in the Cologne Philharmonie after Markus Stenz's superb Mahler 8 the other Saturday, in which she'd played so regal a part. Little did I know, when I took this picture in the Philharmonie's recording studio, that Orla was celebrating a Significant Birthday the next day (she was hardly coy about it, but I'm supposed to be gentlemanly, I guess).
Anyway, after Saturday, I also hope you'll want to hear the leading sound version of Pikovaya Dama, too. But more of that anon.
By the way, I've yet to hear from my pals in Radio 3 exactly how the BBC cuts announced today, with nearly 2,000 jobs to go, will affect them. UPDATE: Roger Wright clarifies a bit here. It did appal me that the axing has been graced with the fair, oh-so-imaginative title of 'Delivering Quality First' (= 'Ditching Quality Fast'). And of course the sort of person who gets paid vast sums to think crap like that up should be the first to go. But middle management usually survives intact; s'ist Lauf der Welt.