Ten-minute homework for the Herheim

QueenOfSpades.jpegWhen mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato laid down her edict to stop dumbing down opera, she was probably thinking of apologetic marketing such as: “You should see Wagner’s Ring because it is like Lord of the Rings“. Or: “Puccini’s Bohemians are just like Friends.” Opera should be marketed on the strength of its differences compared to other forms of art and entertainment, not its similarities. Fans love opera because there’s nothing else like it. Sometimes you need to do a little homework before a performance, beyond reading the plot synopsis. But what’s ten minutes of investment when you get rewarded with an experience such as Pique Dame at this year’s Holland Festival, which opened yesterday?

Director Stefan Herheim and his team have created a handsome production that is both clever and moving. (They have done loads of homework.) The idea is that the characters in this story of love and obsession are expressions of the composer’s desire and suffering. The struggle with his homosexuality and his longing to conform to the norm are central to the staging. Baritone Vladimir Stoyanov plays Tchaikovsky (as well as Prince Yeletsky), as does pianist Christiaan Kuyvenhoven (who also plays the piano in the drawing room scene). Before the overture we see the composer winding up a pair of mechanical caged birds. The music box plays Papageno’s aria “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen”, referenced in the score during a Mozart-like diversion called “The Faithful Shepherdess”.  The caged birds, a symbol of repressed feelings thrashing to be released through composition, reappear during “The Faithful Shepherdess” and are neatly linked to Tomsky’s mildly lewd song about the birds and the boughs. That’s just one strand in the rich weave of this production, where the characters externalise Tchaikovsky’s inner life. Tomsky’s confident macho officer, flanked by his bullying cronies, represents everything that the composer would like to be. Visually, the character most strongly identified with Tchaikovsky is Prince Yeletsky, whose declaration of love to Liza  becomes the composer’s hopes for his catastrophic marriage to Antonina Miliukova. But both Liza and the Old Countess are also Tchaikovsky at various points. Liza’s sister Polina is dressed as a young man. She could be the young Tchaikovsky, or one of the objects of his passion, such as his nephew Vladimir Davydov. This sounds complicated, but isn’t, because the links are crystal-clear. Many of the costumes are variations on the composer’s grey suit, which flowers into a bustle in one of its feminine versions. It’s up to the spectator to decide why his white shirt is repeatedly streaked with a red trailing cravat. Hermann’s obsession with gambling stands for Tchaikovsky’s unwanted homosexual passions and he literally wrestles with this part of himself. The way Herheim has the chorus voicing social mockery and menace, as well as the composer’s self-loathing, makes your blood run cold. After all, as recently as 2013 the Russian Minister of Culture felt the need to declare that Tchaikovsky was not gay.

So what do you need to know before going to this terrific show?

  1. If you’re not familiar with the opera, read the synopsis.
  2. Then read a bit about Tchaikovsky’s life. If you like extra homework, read about the theories surrounding the composer’s death.
  3. Keep in mind these key concepts: self-loathing, longing to conform, catastrophic marriage, drinking unboiled water during a cholera epidemic, possible suicide.

Then go and be swept away by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, led by Tchaikovsky master Mariss Jansons, and the fascinating storm of emotions raging onstage. If you need any further convincing, here’s Bachtrack’s 5-star review.

Pique Dame runs at Dutch National Opera until the 3rd of July, 2016.

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