A roar from the orchestra, a bolt of lightning across the stage, and the Domingo era at the Los Angeles Opera had gotten off to a spellbinding start, memorably, sensationally. In conference after conference, the company’s incoming artistic director, Placido Domingo, had promised to attend to many previously unattended areas in the operatic firmament. The choice of Peter Tchaikovsky’s huge, moody “Queen of Spades” — for which the composer’s brother Modest had created a libretto from Pushkin’s harrowing ghost story — initiated the fulfillment of his promises.
It was the company’s long-overdue first venture into Russian-language opera, given brimming life under the probing baton of Russian superstar conductor Valery Gergiev and elevated into stunning contemporary theater by director/designer Gottfried Pilz. The opera had been promised once before, in 1987, but canceled in favor of Verdi’s “Macbeth” in an oddball, Kabuki-style staging the company must surely want to forget. This week’s triumph at the Music Center makes it worth the wait.
Of the two Tchaikovsky operas that have made it to the repertory — “Eugene Onegin” may be the more digestible for its thread of human-sized emotion — “Queen” is by some odds the more powerful and complex. Herman, its central character, cannot control his compulsive gambling and he has an obsession with the old Countess, whom he believes possesses a secret winning formula. It drives Herman to destroy both her and her granddaughter Lisa.
The Tchaikovsky brothers have fleshed out Pushkin’s tale with a rich musical tapestry: a charming pastorale play staged for the Countess’ guests and a rough-and-tumble final scene in the gaming house.
The opera dates from the time of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony; its music, as in that familiar work, is full of haunting, deep tones from clarinets and horns. At moments it also mirrors its composer’s abiding love for the crystalline classicism of music from the century before.
A long orchestral prelude to act two, and the ensuing delicious, lightweight pastorale, fairly twinkle with Mozartian homage. Throughout the score, the story’s undertone of madness manifests itself in a range of dissonance, of counterpoints smashed against one another for startling drama; there is reason to regard this as Tchaikovsky’s most musically daring score.
And “daring” is the word, as well, for the treatment accorded the work before a cheering full house on Tuesday. Pilz dispenses with the libretto’s scenic suggestions (which are, by the way, nicely fulfilled in the video of the opera from the St. Petersburg Kirov, also under Gergiev).
Pilz has, instead, created a single performing space, a huge room raked from right to left, dominated overhead by a huge crystal chandelier. A dark area down front at stage level serves as a kind of limbo, where the hero — a mere wraith in the darkness — contemplates his personal demons. The one main space serves as park, ballroom, the Countess’ bedroom and — with shadows eerily projected onto the rear wall — gaming house. Everything moves, usually at feverish pace, and more than once a chorus bursts into the scene like a flood from a broken dam.
The crowds dance to Gustavo Llano’s whirlwind choreography and so, in fact, does the opera itself, under Gergiev’s propulsive leadership, with the frazzled bedazzlement of Domingo’s 60-year-old pipes in near-pristine condition.
Russian soprano Galina Gorchakova, her smallish voice nicely colored toward the dark side, was the touching Lisa; soprano Suzanna Poretzky, a recent winner in the Domingo-sponsored Operalia competition, offered a delightful take on her one big aria.
The evening’s loudest, longest cheers, however, went to the veteran Elena Obraztsova, who had little actually to sing about, but whose silent enactment of her death scene — punctuated with resonance by the fall of her cane onto the floor — was one of the evening’s breath-stopping moments.
A brilliant beginning, therefore, and a promising one. The season continues with next week’s “Lohengrin” — again, healing the company’s previous short shrift accorded to Wagner — and moves onward through an admirable variety of offerings. The musical range is spectacular, from the seductive strains of Lehar’s evergreen “Merry Widow” to the 12-tone asperities of Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron” to the curious phenomenon of a staged version of Bach’s churchly B-Minor Mass. So far, so good.