Text: Peter Franken
Armenian tenor Gegam Grigorian died in 2016 shortly after his 65th birthday. Today he would have turned 70. For that reason, a memorial performance took place on 28 January in the Mariinsky Theatre where Grigorian achieved so many great successes under Gergiev in the 1990s. His now world-famous daughter Asmik sang the role of Lisa in Pique Dame, the opera in which her father so often starred as Herman.
For over 20 years, after travel restrictions were lifted due to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Grigorian had an unparalleled international career that took him to all the leading opera stages. He sang almost every major tenor role in the Russian repertoire, but also many others. His Italian repertoire included Radames, Renato, Don Carlo, Alfredo, Il Duca, Manrico, Otello, Pinkerton, Loris, Cavaradossi, Pollione, Count Almaviva, Maurizio, Canio and Turridu.
I am not sure that I have ever heard him sing live. In 1996, Gergiev came to The Hague with the Mariinsky for two performances of Prince Igor, a production that he had recorded for Philips. On this recording Grigorian sang Vladimir Igoryevich, but I cannot find out if he was actually present in The Hague. On other recordings that I possess, he sings Pierre Besuchow in War and Peace and Don Alvaro in La forza del Destino.
But in view of the choice that the Mariinsky made for the memorial concert, I thought it appropriate to take another look at the 1992 recording of Pique Dame. It is a live performance from the Mariinsky under a very young Valery Gergiev. The credits still refer to the Kirov Opera, as the performance took place shortly after the revolution.
Yuri Temirkanov’s production is extremely classical, both in terms of the costumes from the time of Catherine the Great and the manner of staging. Everything is done exactly as prescribed by the libretto, down to the smallest details. The cast is representative for the top quality that characterised the company in those days; there are the big names in all the leading roles.
There is the luxurious cast of Olga Borodina as Pauline and Sergei Leiferkus as Count Tomsky. Leiferkus is emphatically present; you can hardly ignore him because of his somewhat ‘over the top’ costume. His two arias about the three cards and the little birds that are allowed to sit on his branch are performed with humour and verve. Ludmilla Filatova as the Countess is rather a caricature, especially when she is given a nightcap to wear. Vocally, her contribution is adequate. The same applies to Alexander Gergalov’s Prince Yeletsky who, all considered, has only one chance to make himself heard. His declaration of love is moving, but Lisa walks away without any perceptible reaction immediately after the last note.
Lisa is sung by Maria Gulegina, and she gives an excellent performance. In her big solo in the last act, she does have to force herself a bit, but that may be blamed on the composer rather than the soprano. I would have liked to hear Asmik in this role; if anyone can handle these passages well, it is she.
But the reason I am reviewing this DVD is, of course, the Herman of the company’s star tenor at the time, Gegam Grigorian. He is 42 years old and in very good shape, Hochform as they say in Germany. His simple black costume, a kind of uniform, makes him stand out from the other men, who look a bit like tropical ornamental birds in a cage. This makes him instantly recognizable as an outsider. For that matter, Lisa’s dress is also remarkably sober, so simple indeed that she also stands out from her own entourage and thus is immediately paired up visually with Herman.
Grigorian’s Herman gets more and more touching towards the end. First he leaves his troubled Lisa to her fate and then he enters the gaming room. His behaviour is that of someone almost haunted, he is no longer in control of himself. After his winning card, the seven, he sings ‘What is our life? A game’. He is about to make a fortune, but it does not really matter to him any more. The death scene at the end, where, with his last breath, he asks Prince Yeletsky for forgiveness, reminds me of Fedora in the opera of the same name that I saw in Stockholm with daughter Asmik in the leading role. Gegam once sang the role of Fedora’s lover Loris.
I am determined to see his Forza del Destino again, not only because Grigorian sings Don Alvaro, but also because of the director of this production: the recently deceased Elijah Moshinsky. Also someone who will be sorely missed.