The Queen of Spades – Tchaikovsky - Royal Opera House
The three act opera, The Queen of Spades, by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, was based on a short story by Alexander Pushkin, with a libretto by Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest. The premiere took place at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg in 1890.
The Norwegian Opera Director, Stefan Herheim, who made his debut at the ROH directing Les Vepres Siciliennes in 2013, directed a somewhat confused dramatic account, although with a staging that is visually attractive. It is indeed this staging that is at the core of all that is good and bad about this operatic evening. It is a staging that cleverly allows walls to fold back from an intimate living room scene to a large ballroom/crowd space.
It was always clever and attractive and well supported by the lighting designer, Bernd Purkrabek, but the one piece set did not allow for different atmospheric scenes and therefore the longer the evening went on the more tedious the action became.
In order for the Director to add depth to the evening’s proceedings, particularly dealing with fairly dour Russian plots, he introduced a new character – Tchaikovsky himself – which was never envisaged by the Composer. In doing so Herheim was pursuing an agenda that was not the Composers, but his own. He actually delved into Tchaikovsky’s ‘Moral suffering that so plagued him throughout his later life’ and so we learnt more about Tchaikovsky’s angst in dealing with his homosexuality than we did about Gherman’s pursuit of the secret of the three cards.
A wonderful Vladimir Stoyanov acted the role of Tchaikovsky and sung the role of Prince Yeletsky, but he couldn’t redeem the interference from his Tchaikovsky portrayal, particularly his constant conducting of the music from the stage, which became a real distraction. At the end one wondered who had really controlled the glory of the music – Pappano or Stoyanov!
Perhaps in order to lighten proceedings, Herheim resorted to some pantomime moments and effects. He also ensured that just as Tchaikovsky died by drinking a glass of water infected by cholera, so did the Countess and Liza, as well as Gherman, who all died in the same way.
Whilst the Conductor was always in control of the music in a powerful performance, the singing was occasionally somewhat wayward. The Gherman of Aleksandrs Antonenko was replaced at the last moment due to indisposition by the young Russian tenor, Sergey Polyakov. As his nerves in the first half of the proceedings dispersed and the sense of forced vocalisation disappeared, he gave us a second half performance that was strong and articulate and indeed very apt in sound for the part.
His Liza was Eva-Maria Westbroek, who started slowly and indeed caringly for her new tenor lover, who had only arrived on the day of the performance, but her performance also became stronger as the evening wore on.
The rest of the singing was at least adequate, with specific mention to a wonderful Count Tomsky of John Lundgren and a Countess of Felicity Palmer. The chorus – not always balanced – all dressed as Tchaikovsky lookalikes at the end, also drank poisoned water and died. There was particularly fine singing from the Tiffin Children’s Chorus.
Tchaikovsky always saw his salvation in music - ‘One could lose one’s senses if music didn’t exist’. During the evening it was the music under the baton of Pappano rather than Tchaikovsky that won the accolades.