Arkhipova and Hvorostovsky Star in “Queen of Spades”

Queen of Spades cover

TCHAIKOVSKY: Queen of Spades (Pique Dame) / Vitaly Tarashchenko, ten (Hermann); Natalia Datsko, sop (Lisa); Irina Arkhipova, mezzo (Countess); Dmitri Hvorostovsky, bar (Prince Yeletsky); Nina Romanova, mezzo (Pauline); Grigory Gritsyuk, bar (Count Tomsky); Alexander Vedernikov, bass (Surin); Oleg Klenov, bar (Chekalinsky); Vladimir Grishko, ten (Major-Domo); Tatiana Kuzminova, mezzo (Governess); Lidia Chernykh, sop (Masha); Yurlov Republican Academic Choral Capella; USSR Radio & TV Symphony Orchestra; Vladimir Fedoseyev, cond / Melodiya MELCD1002549 (live: Moscow, December 1989)

This concert performance of Tchaikovsky’s operatic masterpiece, given at the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in December 1989 but sometimes erroneously attributed to 1990, was an important early appearance by the late baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the role of Prince Yeletsky. Although this is being touted as its first commercial release, it is actually just the first official release taken from the master tapes. It was previously issued, in somewhat drier and boxier sound, on MCA AED 3-68023 and Relief CR 991067.

Although this is not quite as taut and driving a performance as Mark Ermler’s famous Philips recording with Tamara Milashkina (Lisa), Vladimir Atlantov (Hermann), Andrei Fedoseyev (Yeletsky) and Elena Obraztsouva (Countess), it is much better sung. Everyone is in great voice, the natural hall acoustics give the whole endeavor a wonderful presence, and despite Fedoseyev’s slightly more relaxed tempi the soloists interpret their

Tarashchenko

Tarashchenko

roles very well. Atlantov, one of my all-time favorite Russian tenors, had a huge, bronze voice, almost like a Russian Caruso, with a very distinctive timbre, yet although Vitaly Tarashchenko has a more generic Russian sound he sings with greater ease and an equally brilliant top (Franco Corelli, eat your heart out!). Nina Romanova, who sings Pauline (Arkhipova’s star role in this opera until she was moved on to the Countess), also has an outstanding voice. And, of course, young Hvorostovsky is of a world standard while Andrei Fedoseyev (I’d bet the son or brother of the current set’s conductor) was just OK in his role. In addition, all the singers here blend their voices together beautifully in ensembles, a detail one rarely hears in modern performances of almost anything nowadays.

Where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, is in the latter part of the opera, where Lisa’s passions and Hermann’s mania reach a fever pitch. Natalia Datsko drives her beautiful soprano voice about as well as you could expect, but Milashkina, in the commercial recording, is practically at the brink of insanity despite her thinner, shriller, more nasal voice. She doesn’t sing beautifully and was several years past her sell-by date, but she inhabits the role with Callas or Martha Mödl-like intensity. Datsko thrills you while Milashkina sends electric shocks down your spine, but you know what? In the end, I found myself preferring this performance to the studio recording.

Taken as an overall performance, this new release will certainly give you your money’s worth of Pique Dame (as I insist on calling it, since that is its more common title), and for Western ears the Datsko-Tarashchenko-Hvorstovsky triumvirate will be far more acceptable. And then there is Irina Arkhipova, in my view the greatest Russian mezzo who ever trod the planet. Others have had prettier voices (not Obraztsouva, whose voice was dramatic and powerful but not particularly pleasant to the ear), but none, in my experience, ever matched Arkhipova’s combination of beauty, metal or “ping” in the voice, musicality and interpretive skill. She was unique, much like the legendary Ernestine Schumann-Heink, and I don’t think that comparison is the least bit out of place.

The difference, then, is more a case of a performance given at orange heat (this one) compared to red hot (the Philips recording). Musical values are better in this performance: Ermler does tend to rush things a bit. But in the end, both the musical and vocal values are better served by this performance. This is now my preferred version of the opera.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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