Opera in concert: Pique Dame

On Saturday night with D to hear/see the SSO’s concert performance of Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame. Little did I know, when I saw it in my opera-going youth in 1979, that there wouldn’t be another chance in Sydney for another 33 years.

You can see why it might not get mounted all that often. Opera Australia seems resigned to a loss if it mounts any opera which is not Italian, and the less expensive Eugene Onegin edges out PD whenever thoughts turn to Tchaikovsky at the opera. So that’s why we have resort to “opera in concert.”

This is something approaching an oxymoron, but let that pass for necessity’s sake. When the SSO puts on an opera this way, what it can offer is casting at a superior level and a more luxurious orchestral sound. I’m not so convinced by the Philharmonia Choir as a substitute for an operatic chorus, though they made a pretty good fist of it. The children’s choir probably needed to be a bit more “shouty” to be idiomatic – especially the boys as soldiers. Surtitles (just like the opera though also, just like the opera recently, with the occasional lag, especially on this occasion at the start) freed us from poring over program books.

The main challenge of a concert performance is for the singers: without the lengthy rehearsal process and coaching that they get in an opera production, how much will they be able to bring their characters to life? The risk is that they will be buried in their books.

Fortunately most of the singers overcame this, except for José Carbo. Perhaps the Cyrillic and the lingo were all too much. In the last act he had to sing a funny song at the casino. The chorus all laughed on cue to a gesture from Vladimir Ashkenazy. Alone of his fellow gamblers, Gennadi Dubinsky, as Surin, gave a little actorly chuckle – but it occurred to me he might really have been laughing at JC’s Russian. Mr Carbo is a singer I admire. Even if the “three cards” song sits a bit low for him (though it has a high finish), I think he can do [even] better than he did on Saturday if he can manage to look up a bit more. One peril of “opera in concert” is probably worth a mention: JC sported a pair of spectacles, presumably to read the score; D was shocked because he hadn’t thought JC old enough to need them.

Carbo got some scattered claps after this song, but it wasn’t until the (amazingly youthful) Andrei Bondarenko sang Prince Yeletsky’s big number rather well that the audience was really moved to applause. If it’s an opera, I think there should be room for that response – it would be a pity if people were inhibited from applauding by the concert “rules.”

As the ratio of Russian-speaking singers crept up, things became more dramatic. Stuart Skelton managed to match them, even if his manner of sticking out his jaw made him look, to me at least, more sulky than moody. That’s just a niggle because his performance really was one you could count as a triumph. This is a role he should take to the (proper) stage. Dina Kuznetsova was convincing and (I held back at first because of the sexism, but it is inherent in the work) convincingly gorgeous.

It’s a pity that the mode of curtain calls didn’t permit adequate response to be made to the singers individually.

Given that the opera is Russian, there of course are some sad songs. I know this is a stereotype, but those Slavs, they do good lugubre! Otherwise, the nocturnal middle section, for me at least, was the best. I’m a sucker for muted strings. The orchestra had desk lamps and the stage was darkened for Act III scenes one and two. I think it could also have been darkened for Act II scene ii.

Ensemble was a bit loose when things had to be fast and crisp, especially when there were syncopated figures in the accompaniment and a lot was going on vocally. One of the faster bits in one of Hermann and Lisa’s duets got a bit ragged.

As is often the way today, the performance redistributed three acts into two, with a break in the middle of the second act. I know there are financial reasons for this, but nevertheless I think it is an unfortunate compromise. It also meant that (for me at least) things dragged a bit in the pastoral interlude in Act II scene i.

I’d gladly go again tonight but will probably have to manage with the broadcast, which is on ABC “Classic” FM this Sunday.


I’m told there were no head-in-book issues with Mr Carbo on Monday night and he certainly sounded terrific on as much of the broadcast as I was able to catch on Sunday night (which for the first half unfortunately required shutting off impromptu guests in the kitchen whilst I caught as much as I decently could – including his “3 cards” narrative – in the living room).

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