Opera North’s New ‘The Queen Of Spades’ Lacks What Is Most Important: Heart.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Tchaikovsky, The Queen of Spades:  Soloists, Opera North Chorus and Orchestra, Richard Farnes conductor), Barbican Theatre, London, 22.11.2011 (JPr)

(New production by Neil Bartlett, sets and costumes by Kandis Cook and a new English translation by Neil Bartlett and Martin Pickard)

The Queen of Spades; Opera North- Photo Bill Cooper

In 1997, with most of the UK glorying in Tony Blair’s election as Prime Minister, I headed to Leeds for Opera North’s staging of Wagner’s Tannhäuser (I even hosted their study day on this work for them); this was only one of my many happy memories of seeing this company on stage during the latter years of the twentieth century. I’ve had no reason to see them in the intervening years; even less had any opportunity to review them. So I was looking forward to being reacquainted with Opera North at the start of their new partnership with the Barbican. They brought to London Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore, The Girl I left Behind (about women in trousers)and this new production (premièred last month in Leeds) of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades.

There is a famous song about overcoming the lure of gambling that includes the lines: “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away and know when to run. You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table, there’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.”

This can apply equally to an opera company’s over-ambition, singers going on too long, as well as here, a tale based on the novel by Alexander Pushkin about Herman, a military engineer who gambles his life on a winning combination of three cards that will bring him untold wealth. The secret of those is known only to the Countess, the grandmother of Lisa, the fiancée of Prince Yeletsky. She is someone Herman has admired from afar but he now gets close to … and to her grandmother too. In Paris the Countess was known as ‘The Queen of Spades’ and on losing everything in a card game she was given a winning formula by an admirer who seduces her. Rumour has it that she has given away this secret to two people already but will die at the hands of the third person she tells. Herman is obsessed by this story and over the opera’s seven scenes we see his moral decline and the path of destruction he leaves behind that includes forcing Lisa to commit suicide and falling victim himself to the Countess’s revenge.

The libretto for The Queen of Spades (originally Pikovaya Dama but more familiar from its French title Pique Dame) was written by the composer’s brother, Modest, and the opera was premièred in St Petersburg in 1890 and this is the first time that Opera North and their music director, Richard Farnes, have tackled the piece. Early reports praised Farnes and the orchestra for their playing of Tchaikovsky’s score but that must have been in a venue with a proper orchestra pit and not the restricted space available in the Barbican Theatre. Here some brass and percussion are on stage and dominate the balance of sound when involved. The overall impression – because of a seemingly limited string section and a dry acoustic – was that it was a rather pallid account of Tchaikovsky’s richly-textured and angst-ridden score. There was certainly some heightened drama in Act III but it was all a little too late. It was much the same for the enhanced chorus, who with several additional children, seemed very uncertain during the opening scene but improved later on for the paean to the Empress of Russia and the men’s plangent and harrowing singing of the words of the Nunc Dimittis (‘Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’) in the final scene after Herman’s death.

It was sung in a fairly routine English translation and I heard ‘Three Ca-ards’ a little too often but I suspect there was no alternative? With diction as good as we heard the projected English titles were superfluous – is it the modern opinion that audiences hearing opera in English in the UK cannot concentrate and just listen to the words?

If you think I have been trying to avoid writing about the production and the singers you would be right. This is the first major opera that theatre director, Neil Bartlett, has done and his is a bland, no-risks approach, devoid of any dramatic tension or impending horror over the fate of Herman and Lisa. The lack of much direction at all was highlighted by Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (Herman) having no idea what to do with the (toy) gun in his hand and the over-theatrical slump from Josephine Barstow’s Countess against a wall when she has a seizure. It was clear that the Countess was the only real character Bartlett was interested in, but even he couldn’t decide whether she was so infirm she needed to hobble with a stick or was fit enough to be the grande dame at the Act II ball. In her pivotal Act II and III scenes Bartlett had the Countess repeat the histrionics of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard and then reappear as something akin to the ghost of Marilyn Monroe. The longer it went on, the more I wished Bartlett had used the opportunity to present The Queen of Spades as a slice of TV’s Downton Abbey life with the Countess mimicking Dame Maggie Smith’s Dowager Duchess – now that would have been a production, even if taking the rise out of that obvious target might have been just a little too easy.

Kandis Cook’s set design is bare and box-like with just the hint of a royal place. Chris Davey’s lighting gives it all basically a yellowish hue and belatedly there is some Expressionist use of shadows. The handsome, slightly camp, costumes come from the 1830s of Pushkin’s original story but together with the rather non-descript set could be tweaked to accommodate any number of operas or operettas. Props are limited to little more than a few chairs, an extravagant harpsichord, a platform for the ‘The Virtuous Shepherdess’ charade in Act II and some gambling tables. A partition comes down to make things a little more intimate from time to time, as when Herman confronts the Countess in her bedroom. However the only hint of ‘The embankment of a canal’ in Act III was through narrow open doors at the back of the stage and this made nonsense of Lisa’s suicide.

And finally to the singing: starting with the smaller roles that generally were more successful than the bigger ones. Russian-born Alexandra Sherman was excellent as Pauline and exhibited a rare, true contralto. Fiona Kimm was a stern Governess and Gillene Herbert an eager maid, Masha. Equally good were Daniel Norman, as Chekalinksy, and Julian Tovey, as Surin, who together encourage Herman’s demise, and Paul Rendall was a colourful Master of Ceremonies.

William Dazeley’s Prince Yeletsky was impressive and never more so than in his Act II aria that revealed the only true Russian bite and Tchaikovskian legato of the evening. However I prefer to remember Jonathan Summers in better days, though some may feel that his rather worn voice was rather suitable for the drunken reprobate Count Tomsky. I first heard Josephine Barstow over thirty years ago when she sang Aida for English National Opera at the height of her career, but she clearly gloried in being centre-stage once again as the Countess and while she didn’t as much sing as speak ‘on pitch’, her Act II bedroom scene was nevertheless riveting.

As Lisa and Hermann, Orla Boylan and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts were just a cipher of the romantic couple who should be central to a successful performance of this work. I have heard them both sing better and I am disappointed that the management of an opera company cannot do something when two singers are so clearly miscast in such an important production. Lloyd-Roberts’ awkward, intense, demented approach to the role became unappealing, as was his mostly gruff, unreliable, voice that resorted in Act III to crooning more suitable to Les Misérables than grand opera. Boylan had a matronly demeanour and a few rapier Wagnerian top notes but elsewhere her voice lacked support and swooping lyricism. Perhaps these two singers do not like each other because there was no chemistry between them and so all heart was missing in this ultimately dispiriting new The Queen of Spades.

Jim Pritchard

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