Elijah Moshinsky’s splendid 1995 Met production of The Queen of Spades (Pique Dame) captures Pushkin's dark and brooding story with a large white picture frame with a slight tilt that dominates the stage periphery. Almost all action occurs within the frame, accentuating the claustrophobic atmosphere of the late 18th-century Imperial Russian high society. Within the frame are gray walls. Public settings of the opera, the park, the ball, and the card game, feature bright colors of white, blue and red in the background. Sumptuous costumes by Mark Thompson are in neutral, black, white, gray, except for the old Countess’s red party dress. Private moments of the story, the bedroom meeting of the protagonist Hermann and Lisa, his unwitting murder of the countess and his nightmarish encounter with her ghost in his barracks, are dark and stark in contrast.

Igor Golovatenko (Yeletsky) and Lise Davidsen (Lise)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

Moshinsky’s dark/light, private/public direction is a perfect homage to Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece that encompasses many musical styles and themes. The composer deftly incorporates elements of Mozart in the pastoral entertainment, and have the Countess murmur a French song. There are some showstopping arias such as Prince Yeletsky’s declaration of love to Lisa. But the composer is at his best when he gives us the various renditions of the motif of the three cards, the ominous whisper of strings for brooding moods of the protagonist, crashing brass and strings for the sweeping waters of River Neva that accompany Lisa’s suicide, all memorable moments of dense and complex orchestration. Vasily Petrenko, a young conductor making his Met debut, gave a beautiful account of the score. His conducting was at once meticulous, detailed and restrained, and yet expansive, sweeping and sparkling. He was attentive to his singers at the same time, adjusting volume and tempo as needed. He communicated his deep understanding and love of the music in precise gestures. The Met Orchestra responded with palpable excitement, and played with beauty and grandeur leading up to the devastating climax. The mighty Met Chorus was on their usual top form, and their tribute to Catherine the Great in the ball room in Act 2 and their gambling songs in Act 3 provided wonderful contrast and relief to the gritty and personal drama.

The Act 2 ball
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

Young Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen’s Met debut was anticipated with great excitement. With her enormous and clear voice, Ms Davidsen commanded the stage as Lisa from the beginning. Even in silent moments her stage presence was unmistakable, and not just due to her height. Her quiet inner voice seemed to come through in her understated acting. But above all, hers is a voice of such uniqueness and charisma that combines power and warmth and rides above and through the orchestra with seeming ease without turning strained or shrill. It is also a voice that can express a fine shade of colors, and her soft singing was just as thrilling as her full voice with the rich and dark colors of her voice coming in full display. One is grateful to have a young soprano of her talent and promise.

Larissa Diadkova (Countess) and Yusif Eyvazov (Hermann)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

Singing the protagonist Hermann, Yusif Eyvazov was somewhat tentative and underpowered in Act 1. After warming up, his voice gained strength, and his high notes were accurate and ringing throughout. Perhaps due to awkward blocking, there was little stage chemistry between Hermann and Lisa in their bedroom encounter, and one never got the sense that the two were in love with one another. Mr Eyvazov’s singing was secure, if not particularly exciting, and he managed the demanding role of the unhappy soldier with honest effort.

Alexey Markov (Tomsky) and Larissa Diadkova (Countess)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

The rest of the mostly Russian cast all provided strong support to make the revival an occasion to savor. Another debutant, Igor Golovatenko, as Prince Yeletsky, sang the famous Act 2 aria with warmth and sincerity. Alexey Markov’s Tomsky was splendid in voice and acting as an assured and cynical commentator of the drama. Larissa Diadkova sang and acted the role of Countess not so much as a crazed witch as an old woman resigned to her fate with dignity. As Lisa’s cousin Polina (and the shepherd Daphnis in the divertissement), mezzo Elena Maximova impressed with her versatility and charm. It was a joy to have veterans Paul Groves as Chekalinsky and Jill Grove as the Governess. While their parts were small, Leah Hawkins as Lisa’s maid Marsha and Mané Galoyan (another debut) as Chloe were both impressive in their attractive singing. But it was the evening dominated by two impressive newcomers to the Met, Davidsen and Petrenko, who made a compelling case for the composer’s dark and lesser known masterpiece.