Queen of Spades – Review – Leeds Showcase Deluxe (Live Satellite Screening)
By Eve Luddington, January 2019
The joys of live streaming! It increases audiences by millions and we, those millions, are treated to affordable productions from national and international arts companies. The rapport built between cast and audience in the actual theatre may be lost by cinema audiences but we benefit from close-ups of the action (okay, sometimes they’re too close), easy-to-read subtitles and comfortable seating in a venue near home. More than any other innovation, this is one most likely to remove the elitist reputation long-held by theatre and, particularly, opera.
The Royal Opera’s production of The Queen of Spades, sung in Russian, is the first I’ve seen, a romanticised adaption of a Pushkin story by Pyotr Tchaikovsky and his brother Modest (the main librettist). As a reviewer and not an opera buff, I did some preparation but was grateful for the pre-show and interval interviews screened to cinema audiences, too. In fact, I’m not sure I’d have managed without them.
The story itself isn’t complex. The title character is the elderly Countess, who, in her youth, won her wealth at cards after trading her amorous favours with a Count for his winning gambling formula. She has divulged the secret formula only twice and has been warned by an apparition that, when it’s requested a third time, she will die.
“Release from torment”
Her granddaughter, Liza, is betrothed to one man, Count Yeletsky, but falls in love with another, Gherman. He is infatuated by the young woman but lacks the status and money a match with Liza requires. Overhearing the Countess’s gambling story, he becomes obsessed with discovering her secret so that he might acquire wealth – and the girl. Then, they can elope. Liza, dazzled by Gherman’s attentions, slips him the key to her grandmother’s bedroom which will give him access to hers. That night, he steals into the Countess’s room and just manages to conceal himself before she, herself, comes in. He remains hidden until she falls asleep, then stands over her. She wakes; he pleads with her to reveal her gambling formula. When she remains silent he grows desperate and threatens her with a pistol. The Countess dies. To reveal more, would be to spoil the story but, suffice to say, The Queen of Spades isn’t a comic opera.
What distinguishes this production and repays preparation is a concept which director, Stefan Herheim has stamped all over it. He sets the opera not in the 18th century but in 1890, the year The Queen of Spades was first produced. Most strikingly and controversially, Tchaikovsky appears as a character throughout, a man wracked by guilt at his ‘perversion’, homosexuality; a man who fears women, a man who feels that composing music is his only true release from torment.
“Brilliant and bonkers”
These traits are all documented in letters Tchaikovsky himself wrote. So too, his adoration of Mozart to whom he paid tribute in this opera by occasionally imitating his style. Tchaikovsky married but only managed to live with his wife for six weeks, about the period of time he took to write this opera. So, too, the on-stage Tchaikovsky wants to stick to composing and to convention – but his characters crowd him, chastising and attacking him, sometimes overriding his decisions and ultimately falling prey to their fate even against the composer’s intentions. Clearly, the director is at least as interested in Tchaikovsky as by his opera.
Apparently, Herheim is renowned for unusual interpretations and in this, he either surpasses himself or goes too far. I’m not sure. Homosexuality and gender-bending permeate the first half: Liza has a sexual liaison with her friend, Paulina, who’s rather dashingly dressed in a man’s suit. Later, in a delightful set-piece, Paulina and a friend play lesbian birds freed from their cage, to music reminiscent of The Magic Flute. Catherine the Great makes a grand entry to conclude the first half and strips off her robes to reveal that she’s a mustachioed man. It’s brilliant and bonkers; it’s bold and exciting.
But the ‘concept’ distanced me from the story at times, making for a fractured experience. I felt as if I was solving a puzzle – why is this happening? What does that mean? Magically, the exquisite music always drew me back, in a marvellous rendition by conductor Antonio Pappano, the orchestra and the singers. Set and costumes, predominantly black, white and grey, provide strong visuals and characterise effectively the wealth and strange opulence of the society without ever upstaging the action.
By the interval, I was in awe of this Queen of Spades. Not so, some of the audience at Covent Garden, who booed as the curtain came down. This is not a production for those who like their operas straight.
The second half of the opera is much darker. The set shifts and moves, sometimes closing in on the action as now the chorus, as well as the main characters, crowd in on Tchaikovsky, clamouring for his attention. His response involves much ineffectual hand-flapping – too much. Along with the story, Herheim’s focus shifts towards death and suicide in particular. He makes repeated use of the myth introduced in Act One, that Tchaikovsky killed himself by knowingly drinking cholera-infected water. We see not one suicide but scores of them: the male chorus, Tchaikovsky look-alikes, all drink the poison, so too the women. The idea is pursued to the point of tedium. I’d have lost the plot and all emotional engagement were it not for the music.
“Rich and resonant”
As a conductor, Pappano draws every mood and ounce of emotion from Tchaikovsky’s wonderfully atmospheric score. The orchestra, which I’d have liked to see on screen occasionally, did him proud. So, too, the singers who use the emotive Russian language to excellent effect. The enormous chorus, including children, sing with heart and discipline.
Vladimir Stoyanov has the huge challenge of playing both the silent Tchaikovsky and the ardent Count Yeletsky, Liza’s betrothed. His aria to her, declaring his love and sad acceptance of her rejection, is gently sorrowful, tender and true. Playing Yeletsky’s friend is John Lundgren, a strong presence whose baritone voice is rich and resonant.
Sergey Polyakov stepped in to replace the indisposed Alexsandrs Antonenko as Gherman at very late notice. He simmers with intensity, the obsessiveness raging within entirely believable.
Eva-Maria Westbroek has a strong and beautiful soprano voice. I was gripped by her torment as Liza. Unfortunately, her physicality didn’t convey to me the romantic passions that culminate in such tortuous feelings.
Anna Goryachova, a glorious mezzo-soprano, is captivating. She relishes her role as Paulina, interpreted here as a sparky, attractive lesbian.
Felicity Palmer, aged 74, plays the Countess. Her performance is a potent mix of determination and vulnerability. Her haunting, nostalgic aria, ‘I fear to talk with him at night’, in which Herheim has her dancing with Tchaikovsky, moved me almost to tears.
So, an absorbing evening, all 3 ½ hours of it. Certainly, I didn’t see The Queen of Spades as Tchaikovsky envisaged it – surely his narrative focus was on the impact and symbolism of compulsive gambling – but Herheim’s preoccupation with the composer’s sexuality and mental agony was penetrating as a study of creativity itself and perhaps demands a considered essay rather than this review. The music and its execution was sublime, the production a frustrating puzzle – but dazzling, too.
images: Catherine Ashmore