This double cast, nine-day revival of Vadim Milkov's staging of Pique Dame offers a relatively straight reading of Tchaikovsky's opera about the obsessive Pushkin-based character Herman. Embracing the opera's choral and dance passages, spectacle and pageantry are paramount; the drama's surreal and more nuanced dimensions could have been better profiled. The cast and chorus appear mostly in period costumes (Rafael Volsky), while the sets (Victor Volsky) combine select historical touches within an abstract frame, maintaining much open space for the generous cast. Led by Balázs Kocsár, the orchestra offered an energetic and often impressive account of the score.

Zoltán Kelemen (Tomsky) and Kristian Benedikt (Herman) © Péter Rákossy
Zoltán Kelemen (Tomsky) and Kristian Benedikt (Herman)
© Péter Rákossy

With the women and children's choruses jauntily setting a busy outside scene (in this instance with unfortunately jiggling statues), the introduction of Herman casts him clearly as an outsider. Kristian Benedikt certainly conveys his gloomy nature in his compact and scraggly appearance, while Károly Szemerédy as Prince Yeletsky appears as something of a caricature of the wealthy figure in line to marry Lisa, the source of Herman's lovesickness. Tall and beaming in his self-confidence, Szemerédy's unsteady vocal delivery undermined the sense that he was dramatically significant. Indeed, when the constellation of love and gambling interests first assembles onstage, and Herman learns that the object of his affection is Yeletsky's soon-to-be-bride, the brief quintet of personal asides voicing dread and uncertainty lacked tension, illuminating weaknesses in the cast and production that would characterize stretches of the performance to come.

Kristian Benedikt (Herman) and Lívia Budai (The Countess) © Péter Rákossy
Kristian Benedikt (Herman) and Lívia Budai (The Countess)
© Péter Rákossy

Benedikt and Szilvia Rálik as Lisa failed to establish persuasive emotional connections to other characters, including each other. When Hermann snuck into Lisa'a room at night, Rálik showed absolutely no sense of surprise or resistance, let alone attraction towards the interloper. This was not merely a case of wooden or unaware acting. Neither of these key principals offered enough complexity musically. The moments when they unlocked penetrating vocal reserves were admirable and appreciated, but few. In this context, Zoltán Keleman's Tomsky, Erika Gál's Pauline/Milovzar, and Eszter Zavaros' Prilepa stood out for their more compelling and engaged performances. The latter, as they enacted the deftly Mozart-imbued Daphnis and Chloë entertainment in Act 2, were elegantly surrounded by the company's ballet corps (choreography: György Szakály).

Károly Szemerédy (Yeletsky) and Szilvia Rálik (Lisa) © Péter Rákossy
Károly Szemerédy (Yeletsky) and Szilvia Rálik (Lisa)
© Péter Rákossy

Already in the masked ball in Act 2, there was some effort to portray a disturbing dimension of the men's efforts to lodge the Countess's secret to gambling success in Herman's awareness. Some of the men appear in black, as if members of a secret, sinister card-playing society. Benedikt's confrontation of the Countess in her private quarters was a rather bumbling effort however (as was his own death scene). Lívia Budai was challenged by the Countess' reminiscences of the adventures of her youth, yet still proved to be an aptly haunting force in her more uncannily restrained passages. Her return as ghost, Commendatore-like, exacting revenge on Herman, was especially successful in its blend of music and drama. The third act was by far the most polished and effective in almost all respects, showcasing the male chorus in their lusty but ultimately benign enthusiasm for drink, dancing, and gambling, while Herman yielded to his weak grasp of reality.