TCHAIKOVSKY The Queen of Spades (Fedoseyev)
Three quotes head the booklet note for this Melodiya recording of The Queen of Spades – by Alexander Pushkin, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky … and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Poet, composer, star baritone. Hvorostovsky is very much the raison d’être for this release. His death in 2017 robbed the opera world of one of its greatest singers, yet here is a memento from early in his career, just months after his 1989 coronation as Cardiff Singer of the World. It was a contest famously remembered as the ‘Battle of the Baritones’, the other main contender being home boy Bryn Terfel. In that final, two moments stood out: Posa’s death scene from Don Carlo and Yeletsky’s aristocratic aria ‘Ya vas lyublyu’ from The Queen of Spades.
Six months later, on December 25, Hvorostovsky made his Moscow debut in a concert performance of The Queen of Spades, recorded for radio and now receiving its first CD release. This was around the time his debut recital disc of Tchaikovsky and Verdi arias was recorded (Philips, 7/90), which included Yeletsky’s aria. It’s a cough-and-spit role – a role that doesn’t even exist in Pushkin – but star baritones will always be drawn to it for that glorious aria. Speaking to Alan Blyth in a Gramophone interview published to coincide with the release of that Philips disc, Hvorostovsky was already bored with it. ‘I’ve been a full-time Yeletsky for too long!’ he sighed. Well, he’d go on singing it for some time, his final performance coming in 2005 at La Scala.
In the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, Hvorostovsky was on imperious form, silky yet virile, phrases pouring like molten gold, although it’s interesting to note snatches of breath which became even more audible as his career progressed. Soon afterwards, Hvorostovsky recorded the role in the studio on Seiji Ozawa’s complete recording. He’s in better company there – Vladimir Atlantov, Mirella Freni and Sergei Leiferkus – but it’s great to hear him live in Moscow, where the audience takes him to their hearts.
The other name in bold on the cover is the legendary mezzo Irina Arkhipova, here making her role debut as the Countess. Frankly, she deserves to share the star billing, because she sings – rather than growls – the role wonderfully. The rest of the cast is solid. Vitaly Tarashchenko’s intonation not always secure – which is fine for an unhinged character like Herman! – and he’s sometimes a little effortful, but he and Natalia Datsko (Lisa) spark together in their big duets, which see Vladimir Fedoseyev and the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra catch fire. Datsko can sound a little raw at the top but her Lisa is heartfelt.
Elsewhere, Fedoseyev, conducting this opera for the first time, can be remarkably stodgy, not a patch on Mariss Jansons on his superb BR Klassik recording (also made in concert). The Faithful Shepherdess divertissement is very heavy-handed and the orchestral playing is not particularly distinguished, the clarinets woody, the strings pale. The chorus, the Yurlov Republican Academic Choral Capella, however, is wonderfully spirited.
There are no libretto texts and translations but the presentation is neat – three cardboard slipcases, each with a stylish photograph indicating the three cards that make up the Countess’s winning formula. And, at mid-price, this Melodiya release isn’t much of a gamble.