Opera singer Elena Zaremba about “The Queen of Spades” staged by Timofey Kulyabin

Opera singer Elena Zaremba about “The Queen of Spades” staged by Timofey Kulyabin


The Lyon Opera is hosting premiere performances of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, directed by Timofey Kulyabin, who made his debut there. The musical director was one of the most sought-after maestro today, Daniele Rustioni, who began his career in St. Petersburg. The role of the Countess was performed by a Russian contralto Elena Zaremba, who told Vladimir Dudin about interest in directorial challenges and love for Tchaikovsky’s opera.

— You’ve probably been on friendly terms with the Countess in Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades” for a long time.

– This Countess, of course, is not the first, but I don’t keep statistics, I don’t count how many she is. I sang the Countess in Lev Dodin’s production of The Queen of Spades at the Bolshoi Theater, in Barcelona’s Liceu directed by Gilbert Deflo, at the Vienna and Rome Operas, at the Stanislavsky Theater directed by Alexander Titel, by the way, in April I will have a performance there again. .. I will sing in the Vienna Staatsoper. This game is interesting, I love it very much. The Countess and Herman have a very strong scene in the fourth scene of the second act – one of the most expressive in the opera, which should be very dramatic. When the singers achieve this, the whole opera is elevated to another level of drama.

— But you started singing Countess late, not in your youth, as was the case in the career of, say, Elena Obraztsova or now with Olesya Petrova.

– Yes, this age group came to me at the right time. Today, by the way, the Countess is made to look older much less often; in modern productions they don’t want to see the cliché – an old woman with a glued-on nose. I sang the Old Countess only once – in Liceu, in the same production where I previously sang Polina. This is a classic, bright, costume version, which is very popular at Liceu and is renewed periodically. The famous Polish contralto Ewa Podles once sang in it, and it was then that I performed Polina, and she performed the Countess. In the new performance in Lyon, I also have a magnificent costume in which I portray the empress. In any case, the costume and wig are quite imperial, and the ball is staged in the style of balls of the 18th century, I don’t know how authentically.

“But the story of the old Countess, it seems to me, cannot cease to attract modern youth.

— There is a lot of interesting text, it’s true. For example, why does Herman tell her to “be childish”? This was played out very well at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theater. There I dance, and smoke, and actually act out a scene before I die.

I don’t dance anything at the Lyon Opera – here it’s staged as a tragic regret for a bygone era. The director had the Soviet empire in mind; he made the Countess Djuna, a famous Soviet fortune teller who was well-known in all government circles. Here she commits suicide. She is so disgusted with this light that she decides it’s time for that and takes sleeping pills.

— How willingly did you accept all this provocation?

– Firstly, I didn’t know that the production would be provocative, I signed the contract a long time ago, but this is also interesting. The play touches on a very painful topic today; it is very difficult for people to get along with it. But we decided everything during the rehearsals. At the meeting with the artists, the director showed sketches of costumes and scenery, but did not explain the concept. The time of action ended up not being completely clear, as if it were even post-Soviet. Yeletsky is a banker and, on top of that, gay. And Herman is a former military man who has gone crazy.

— Did he have some kind of traumatic affair with the Countess?

– There was no romance. When he came to her, she was already dead. He speaks to her as if she were alive, because due to his injury he is not entirely adequate. Lisa is present during this conversation. The connections are broken, the musical dramaturgy is completely changed, in fact, this is a performance based on the opera “The Queen of Spades”. But this happens very often now.

– Does German have something with Lisa?

– Yes, of course, there is something. Lisa robs the Countess, and she and Herman decide to run away together. The scene at Kanavka takes place at the station, where Lisa is waiting for Herman with suitcases. In the end, she leaves and does not drown herself in the Kanavka. At the same moment, Yeletsky says goodbye to his friend. At the end of the opera, Herman shoots Yeletsky, dressed in the Countess’s dress.

— But, on the other hand, radical directing is a common thing for you; you went through the school of Dmitry Chernyakov, performing Naina in Glinka’s “Ruslan and Lyudmila” at the Bolshoi.

— I went through many schools. Is it a common thing? Familiar. I want to remain tactful. This is the director’s idea and work, his vision of the world, and although it does not correspond to mine, I accept the rules of the game. It’s always very difficult. There is a certain ethics in relations with the director. I can’t say that I agreed with this concept, but I’m a performer, and he’s a director, we work together. My scene in the production was not particularly damaged. The director explained to me what he wanted, I did it my way, taking into account his wishes, finding my own colors. I have a lot of experience both in communication with directors and on stage. For me, all this was not particularly difficult, and Timofey liked the ideas that I brought. In this version of “The Queen of Spades,” the Countess mourns the past time, the lost great country, herself, her past life, which has lost its meaning in old age—the director wanted it to look like crying.

There was a lot of controversy in the production; many details that simply could not be tolerated had to be removed. The first scene in the Summer Garden was a scene where mothers with portraits of their dead sons sing a lullaby to them.

— Did you reach an agreement with the conductor faster?

— Daniele Rustioni is a very good musician. But at first it was difficult for him, he did not grasp all the musical meanings and subtleties; for this he needed to immerse himself in Russian culture. For example, in the scene in the barracks, as you know, funeral chants are heard, but he just makes beautiful music, without understanding the meaning, so many things are not fully revealed. Most of the rehearsals were with an assistant. Daniela was assisted by pianist Julia Levin, wife of Fabio Luisi. Rustioni and I have developed a good relationship; with each subsequent performance, he feels the music better and better, and along the way he rethinks something musically. A very positive and cheerful person, I won’t say anything against it.

— What do you think is responsible for today’s trend of “rejuvenation” of the Countess that you spoke about?

– This is very easy to explain. Now is an age when women have become very careful about their appearance, old age has receded much further than in previous times. When we staged “Pikovaya” with Alexander Titel, conductor Alexander Lazarev said that the Countess should be a woman without age, like Maya Plisetskaya and many famous artists who look brilliant at 80 and 90. For young people, this character is in any case an old woman. When you are young, it seems to you that the 30-year-old woman next to you is already a very respectable lady. Therefore, the exclamation “octogenarian hag” can be considered not as a statement of age, but rather as a cruel joke. And Lev Dodin said the same thing when he staged “Spade” at the Bolshoi. The century has changed, and no one is interested in looking at shaking hands. Although in the play by Timofey Kulyabin, my heroine walks regally across the stage throughout the entire performance and only breaks down in her signature scene. The director asked that my hands shake, but not from old age, but from the heavy burden of life. It’s not just the elderly who can shake hands.


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