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BSO's version of Pique Dame should rank with the best

BOSTON SYMPHONY

ORCHESTRA

Conducted by Seiji Ozawa.

With the Boston Opera Association.

In Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame.

With Mirella Freni, Vladimir Atlantov,

Maureen Forrester and Dmitri

Hvorostovsky as soloists.

With the Tanglewood Festival Chorus,

John Oliver, conductor, and

The American Boychoir,

James Litton, Director.

Symphony Hall, Oct. 16, 19, 22.

By JONATHAN RICHMOND

FUTILE TO ARGUE WHETHER Ozawa's Pique Dame has eclipsed even his extraordinary Elektra: both have been momentous events, time-stoppers which grip listeners and take them to a special world. Both have shown the BSO as a world-class orchestra, the equal of any in both musical felicity and sheer dramatic punch.

Pique Dame as done by the BSO really is a fully-staged opera, despite the unlikely Symphony Hall location. The design by John Deegan and Sarah Conly is ingenious. Scenery is projected onto a sail structure set up behind the stage, and produces imagery every bit as effective as expensive props. It felt as if we had walked into a living photograph from the last century.

The orchestra is set in front of the area where the acting takes place. The drama of both music and action is more than enough to ensure that the visibility of the orchestra causes no distraction, and the unrestrained sound ensnares the audience like the product of no band caught in a pit.

Pique Dame started life as the Pushkin story, "The Queen of Spades." Originally, Tchaikovsky wasn't terribly drawn to the idea of converting it into an opera. His brother, Modest, came up with the suggestion, preferring to work on a symphony rather than an opera at the time. The opera that followed is in many ways symphonic in structure: the unbreakable suspense is projected directly from the music, from which everything else flows.

The story revolves around love, money and luck, and about how the hero ends up with none of the above. Herman loves Lisa, but so does Yeletsky, and Yeletsky is engaged to her. The Countess -- known as a "witch" and a "scarecrow" -- happens to know a secret combination of winning cards, so Herman determines to get this from her and use the money to abscond with Lisa. The Countess dies while Herman is trying to get the secret from her; Lisa kills herself; the Countess returns as an apparition who gives the combo -- which turns out to be a loser. Herman kills himself.

There was nothing weak about this production. The single best singing of the evening, however, came from Maureen Forrester in an aria in fact written by Gr'etry, not Tchaikovsky. Her acting of the part of the stiff old lady had been striking, but the aria was radiantly sung and used as an opportunity to cast a softer, more forgiving light on the role of the Countess.

Vladimir Atlantov, as Herman, at first seemed to have a slightly harsh edge to his voice, but it quickly became clear that he was perfect for the role. A fierce lyricism painted out the character's obsession, and the increasing manic torment showed through in both voice and action.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky's voice spelled nobility, the ardor it projected exuding intense colors but always under control. Mirella Freni sang the part of Lisa rapturously, drawing eloquently upon the autumnal hues of Tchaikovsky's music to portray the struggles of a character locked in a predetermined journey of fate.

Ozawa unleashed something quite special in the orchestra. The BSO's sound was powerful, but possessed of a song-like storytelling eloquence and full of subtlety and detail. The brass soared to heights of erotic frenzy; the strings entered the high drama, too, but provided a seamless, legato line of fate upon which the characters rode to their destiny. As for the winds, the sound of the flute was sweet, while bassoons and oboes provided music of a melancholy which was quite hypnotic in its beauty. Perhaps in their pathos lay the essence of the music as a whole.

MIT's John Oliver led the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in a performance of genius, drawing from the basses, especially, the essence of the Russian soul. Vital and directed as they provided the crowd in the ballroom, regal as they hailed the Countess, they became the source of profound spirituality in the mournful chant at the conclusion. The American Boychoir sang evocatively, too. Who would have guessed that they weren't native Russian speakers?

David Kneuss directed the production, and never let the tension drop. The last scene was developed brilliantly: from the easy mirth of "The Gamblers' Song" to the horror of Herman's inevitable loss at cards. Always letting the music lead the action, he helped make what would have been an outstanding production without any physical movement into one of the greatest performances Boston is likely to see this decade. There are further performances today and Tuesday. This must not be missed.