This looks like a dry run for the infinitely superior Eugene Onegin. When I checked, I was surprised to find that Onegin was written in 1878 and Pique Dame, or the Queen of Spades, 12 years later. Onegin was based on a Pushkin poem and Pique Dame on a short story by the same author. Tchaikovsky seems to have had difficulty stretching this short story to a three-hour opera; he has to pad it out with a ball scene, a masque and a singsong round the piano. Most of Puccini's operas are only about two hours in length. Maybe if Tchaikovsky had gone for something more compressed the end result might have been more satisfactory.
Early on, the tragic heroine, Lisa, bares her soul in what sounds as if it is going to be Tatiana's letter song from Onegin, but the aria in this opera does not achieve those sublime heights. Lisa is sung by Galina Gorchakova. She makes a shaky start, in the aforementioned singsong which seems to be a bit high for her but she performs well in the rest of the role, which is more suited to her range. Plácido Domingo sings Ghermann as though he was expecting to perform in La Forza del Destino, took a wrong turn and found himself in St Petersburg. He glosses over the Russian consonants but, personally, I found this quite pleasant. I don't know what a Russian speaker would have made of it. He is in fine voice but looks a bit too old for the part of the impetuous young man.
There is a strong supporting cast. The 72 year-old Elisabeth Söderström has an effective cameo as the eponymous Pique Dame. I loved the way she falls asleep during the masque and then wakes with a start at an unexpected crescendo, rather in the manner of our own dear Queen nodding off during a Maori folk dance. The baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, as Prince Yeletskij gets the warmest applause of the evening for his moving aria. Olga Borodina has a lovely, treacly mezzo sound as Lisa's friend Pauline and also as the shepherd in the masque.
This is a sumptuous production with six lavish scenes. It is ably directed for the stage by Elijah Moshinsky and for the film by Brian Large although Lisa's suicide is somewhat bungled. I think she is supposed to be wading into a canal but it looks as though she is just walking off the stage. Also,just as in Manon and La Traviata, no-one seems to have cracked yet how to play a plausible game of cards in an opera.
My main problem with this work is that the vocal lines are not well-integrated with the orchestral accompaniment. I don't know whether this is Tchaikovsky's fault, or that of the conductor Valery Gergiev or whether there was a technical problem. It seems at some points, particularly the first act quartet, that the singers just are not hearing each other. They sound as though they are all singing from different hymn sheets.
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