There’s a double gamble whenever opera houses engage Valery Gergiev. When will he turn up? And which Gergiev will turn up? Half an hour before the curtain of La Scala’s new production of Pique Dame, it was still unclear whether he was actually in the building or not. Rehearsals had been taken – very ably by all accounts – by a young assistant, with Gergiev either in Covid isolation or busy on duty with the Vienna Philharmonic. When the lights went down, we waited… and the familiar, haggard figure of Gergiev appeared, doubtless to sighs of relief from the management.

Najmiddin Mavlyanov (Hermann) and Asmik Grigorian (Liza)
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

And which version of Gergiev did we get? The electrifying one. There are few conductors who know Tchaikovsky’s score like the back of their hand. The Russian was at the helm for four performances last month in Vienna, of which I saw the first. Yet the results here were even finer, the orchestra vodka drenched, with grumbling low woodwinds matching the conductor’s growling vocalisations in its gurgling commentary as Hermann confronts the old Countess in her bedroom. The audience response on the eve of a Russian invasion of Ukraine? There were a couple of vocal protests as Gergiev took his place in the pit, though nothing but applause at the curtain call.

Najmiddin Mavlyanov (Hermann) and Julia Gertseva (Countess)
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Any vociferous boos were reserved for the director, Matthias Hartmann, whose Der Freischütz here in 2017 was not well received either. Volker Hintermeier’s set largely consists of a number of triangular prism panels that glide into position. In the opening scene, they are illuminated by strips of fierce neon lighting – my pet peeve – which makes the stage extremely difficult to watch. Thankfully, they are draped in white veils for the scene in Liza’s apartment and are then mirrors for the grand ball, reflecting huge chandeliers. For the Countess’ bedroom, they rotate to reveal dark quilting. One then topples over with a thud to form the edge of the canal in swirling fog, superbly lit by Mathias Märker, a St Petersburg pea-souper. Neon returns – but more effectively – for the finale, forming a single chandelier and the round gaming table. Malte Lübben’s costumes are a black and white mix of traditional and contemporary, apart from the gaudy fun in the ball scene, complete with fluffy-legged satyrs who dance the pastoral pantomime, which looks sillier than ever with its quirky, jerky choral choreography.

The grand ball, Act 2
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Hartmann introduces a character only mentioned during Tomsky’s narration of the three cards. The Countess, when she was a “Muscovite Venus” at the Court of Versailles, trades amorous favours with the Count St Germain in return for the winning formula. Here, we see two distant dancers illustrate that scene, but St Germain becomes a recurring figure, making a crucial intervention when he switches Hermann’s final card in the gambling scene from an Ace to the Queen of Spades.

Najmiddin Mavlyanov (Hermann) and ensemble
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

There’s also directorial funny business with the Countess. Initially depicted by Julia Gertseva with dark glasses and a wobbly shuffle with a walking stick, it seemed a poorly executed “old woman” act. But then, once the Countess has dismissed her staff and prepares for bed, beneath a huge soft focus photograph of her youthful self, she removes her wig and peels bandaging away from her face to reveal a much younger woman, dancing elegantly before retiring to bed. Did St Germain also supply an Emilia Marty-like elixir as part of his bargain?

Julia Gertseva (Countess)
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

The singing was largely fabulous. Najhmiddin Mavlyanov was convincing as a psychotic Hermann. He doesn’t have a ringing top to his tenor, but he rode the orchestra well and gave a terrific final scene when he challenges his fellow officers to ponder what is life if nothing but a game. Alexey Markov sang a silky smooth Yeletsky, aristocratic of bearing, Roman Burdenko a gritty Tomsky. Gertseva’s Countess was strong (the role was originally announced for Olga Borodina, who sang it well in Vienna last month), but Elena Maximova’s mezzo sounded too treacly for Polina. The smaller female roles were excellently cast, Maria Nazarova a delightful Masha (and Prilepa in the pantomime, where she was joined by Olga Syniakova).

Asmik Grigorian (Liza)
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Crowning the evening was the outstanding Liza of Asmik Grigorian, at full throttle both vocally and dramatically. The performance crackled into life at the heartfelt moment in Act 1 when Liza confides her secrets to the night; stepping across to the edge of the pit, one sensed Grigorian making a direct connection with the audience. The steel in her soprano glinted brightly. At times, she pushed the voice too hard, but there was dramatic truth behind every phrase. She sang a thrilling Act 3 aria and final confrontation with Mavlyanov’s Hermann before throwing herself into the canal amid the fog, an incredibly intense moment and an arresting image already seared into the memory.