Tomsky taunts the obsessive gambler in Hermann with his Ballad of the Three Cards. The Countess recounts singing for the king in Versailles. But it is arguably the orchestra itself which is the key narrator in Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame. At the Salzburg Festival, Mariss Jansons and the Vienna Philharmonic made the most eloquent of storytellers, full of mahogany richness and neurotic emotion, yet in the Großes Festspielhaus they dominated the narrative, swamping voices in a Hans Neuenfels production which – apart from Reinhard von der Thannen's outlandish costumes – is unmemorable.

Evgenia Muraveva (Lisa) and Brandon Jovanovich (Hermann) © Monika Rittershaus
Evgenia Muraveva (Lisa) and Brandon Jovanovich (Hermann)
© Monika Rittershaus

Right from the start, Jansons demonstrated his affinity with Tchaikovsky's score. Burnished Viennese strings enveloped the listener in a cocoon. Solo cello had the finesse of lacquered walnut and throbbing violas lamented in the Act 3 prelude. Woodwinds sounded cultured, especially the mournful cor anglais which introduces Prince Yeletsky's aria, and only a few flute smears at the start of Lisa and Polina's duet briefly marred their contribution.

Hanna Schwarz (Countess) and Brandon Jovanovich (Hermann) © Monika Rittershaus
Hanna Schwarz (Countess) and Brandon Jovanovich (Hermann)
© Monika Rittershaus

Christian Schmidt's set is a black box that dulls voices but puts the focus on the exaggerated costuming. Marionette children enter in cages, their nannies in crinolines, sporting padded dumpling breasts. Young officer Hermann wears a scarlet tunic and trousers, but minus any shirt. Lisa appears in a severe white jacket like a Dior model, Polina is a femme fatale in black beret and stilettos, while the Countess – in orange bob wig – looks like a 1920s flapper. The chorus, whether in black bathing gear or funereal garb with bald skullcaps, fades into the set: black on black tends to do that.

Hermann's first encounter with the Countess takes place on a glide-in stage with revolving walls. Travellators slide in black benches – or are they coffins – but when Hermann paces a St Petersburg street reading Lisa's letter, it looks like he's working out on a treadmill at the gym. He's going nowhere fast. The Mozartian Daphnis and Chloe interlude is staged in a gilt frame, the singers at music stands, while actors feebly acted out the plot, with three bewigged sheep as bored observers. Empress Catherine the Great makes her mute entrance as a skeleton with elongated arms.

Salzburg Festival Chorus © Monika Rittershaus
Salzburg Festival Chorus
© Monika Rittershaus

Neuenfels can't hold a candle to Stefan Herheim's Amsterdam staging (also conducted by Jansons) but some of his ideas are effective. During Yeletsky's aria, Lisa sees a vision of her future as a baby factory, seated at a dining table with four infant children and it's this horrifying idea which drives her into Hermann's arms. The Countess' porcelain bedchamber is in stark contrast to the black void elsewhere. She sleeps in a hospital bed and when Hermann appears, she amorously caresses him. When he waves a pistol in her face, she gladly takes it into her mouth. She longs for it all to be over. Lisa commits suicide by walking into a bright light and snatching her shadow. When Hermann loses his gamble – turning over a Queen of Spades instead of the expected Ace – he shoots himself and his corpse sinks into the gaming table's green baize.

Igor Golovatenko (Yeletsky) and Evgenia Muraveva (Lisa) © Ruth Walz
Igor Golovatenko (Yeletsky) and Evgenia Muraveva (Lisa)
© Ruth Walz

Igor Golovatenko's polished baritone shone as Yeletsky, his long lines aristocratically arched, but the rest of the cast struggled against the might of the Vienna Phil. Brandon Jovanovich offered an heroic ring as Hermann, but there was always a sense that he was pushing hard. He has a lovely honeyed mezza voce though and was most convincing in duet with Evgenia Muraveva's Lisa. Muraveva has a creamy lyric soprano, but was pinched at the top, uncomfortable at Jansons' leisurely tempo for her big aria. Oksana Volkova offered warm plum tones as Polina. Hanna Schwarz was a haughty Countess, but her mezzo is now raddled, with a hollow middle register, and her French is muddied beyond recognition. Vladislav Sulimsky was an underpowered Tomsky, lacking sardonic bite. For the real drama here, one had to rely on the pit.

***11