A Dark, Sinister Queen of Spades

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Tchaikovsky: Queen of Spades   Soloists, Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich, conductor: Jiri Belohlavek, Zurich Opera, Zurich. 11.4.14 (JR)



Gherman, Misha Didyk
Count Tomsky,Alexey Markov
Lisa,Tatiana Monogarova
Countess, Doris Soffel
Count Yeletsky,Brian Mulligan
Chekalinsky,Martin Zysset
Tsurin,Tomasz Slawinski
Tschaplizki,Kristopher Lundin
Narumov,Alexei Botnarciuc
Festordner, Alessandro Fantoni
Polina,Anna Goryachova
Governess, Julia Riley
Mascha, Alexandra Tarcineru


Director, Robert Carsen
Sets, Michael Levine
Dramaturgy, Beate Breidenbach
Costumes, Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting, Robert Carsen/ Franck Evin
Choreography, Philippe Giraudeau
Chorus, Jürg Hämmerli[/table]


Zurich Opera is currently and deservedly basking in glory: thrilled to be named a few days ago in the International Opera Awards 2014 (dubbed, wittily, as “The Toscars” by critic and jury member Hugh Canning) as the best opera company of the year is testament to an invigorating new era under Intendant Andreas Homoki: his choice of productions may not always be entirely to a conservative audience’s liking but they are always interesting and intelligent.  The DVD of Homoki’s production of Charpentier’s opera David et Jonathas at the Aix-en-Provence Festival a few years ago wins an award. Other award winners linked with Zurich are Stuart Skelton (who sings in Das Lied von der Erde in December), Diana Damrau (who sings Adina in L’elisir d’amore in June 2015 and a recital in October), Tatjana Kurbaca (for her production of Parsifal for Vlaamse Opera) and the opera’s own period orchestra La Scintilla for its part in the Salzburg Festival production of Norma.

The Queen of Spades, a powerful and emotional Russian drama of love and gambling, was the opera that won Tchaikovsky the most acclaim in his lifetime, not as you might have thought Eugene Onegin. Gherman, the protagonist in this opera, is an outsider; he has fallen madly in love with a young woman whose name he does not know (Lisa) and who is way above him in social standing. Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest wrote the libretto, after a novel by Pushkin, changing the plot considerably.  Gherman is impecunious and therefore anxious to extract the secret of a card game from Lisa’s grandmother in the hope that this will gain him fortune, respect and thereby the love of Lisa. It all goes spectacularly wrong, of course, in gripping fashion.

The card game itself, incidentally, is Faro (also spelled Pharo) and the same game which features in both Fanciulla del West and The Tales of Hoffmann.

The opera starts with an apparently dead Gherman front stage, surrounded by his friends, and the opera then goes back in time to explain how this death has come about.

I could not attend the première opening night when the announced tenor, Misha Didyk, could not sing because of a lung or chest infection. Luckily (but read on) a few days later, for the performance the subject of this review, he had recovered. Some of the later performances will however be sung by his stand-in, Aleksandrs Antonenko, who received excellent reviews from the local Press.

Robert Carsen’s new production places the focus full square on the hallucinations and mental anguish of the central character Gherman. If you like dark green, you would love the set: dark green padded walls on three sides (a padded cell perhaps) with no visible openings, green baize for the gaming tables, a dark green bed for the Countess. Gherman meanders round the stage, spot-lit in the gloom, in a scruffy raincoat: quite why Lisa should fall for him is a mystery. The rest of the cast are in evening dress, the men in black tie, the women in little black dresses. The changes of scene are accomplished by raising and lowering the (dark green) casino lights and the bed. For the scene by the canal, where Lisa (but why in a nightdress?) waits for Gherman at midnight, the back wall comes forward to front stage.

Carsen dispenses with the childrens’ choir, as well as the masked ball, fireworks and other fripperies: they do not, apparently, appear in Pushkin’s text and Tchaikovsky only added them to suit the taste of the time.

Parents are always told not to return their children to school until they have been free of fever for 24 hours; sick office workers are sometimes tempted to return to work too quickly. Opera singers should be given the same instructions, but clearly other pressures apply. Misha Didyk had audibly not recovered from his chest (or lung) infection, he had to force his voice, most unattractively, his top notes were a croak. Whatever medicine he had administered started to take effect after the interval, though his arias were less declamatory, which helped him. At the final curtain he looked thoroughly washed out (by his vocal exertions, I suspect, rather than the drama of the plot), relieved to have made it through the work and relieved by the polite applause from a sympathetic audience.

Russian soprano Tatiana Monogorova, who has sung the role all over Europe, generally impressed particularly in her Act III arioso. Her middle range is somewhat restricted and monotonous.

Vocal, diction and acting honours go to Alexey Markov as Count Tomsky, a mellow bass, simply perfect for this role. Brian Mulligan’s diction could not match his colleagues but he fields an attractive smooth baritone.

Doris Soffel has an impressive list of roles stretching back through the decades; she is now in her mid-sixties. The role of Countess is a perfect fit. Carsen has her appear and disappear in the bed as it rotates; an intriguing and ingenious touch of magic. Similarly Hermann emerges spookily from the gloom without making a visible entrance, before he tries to extract the secret of the three cards. The Countess suffers a heart attack at the sight of Gherman’s pistol before she can divulge the secret (she does this later, as a ghost, but deliberately makes a mistake on the last card, which leads ultimately to Gherman’s suicide).

Martin Zysset and Tomasz Slawinski as Chekalinsky and Tsurin respectively resembled Little and Large to comic effect. Anna Goryachova sang a most competent Polina, with ample sweetness. The chorus, whilst not sounding Russian, were on good form throughout and enjoyed the festivities.

Belohlavek was in the pit. What I missed was Russian bite and white heat; it was all rather avuncular – the orchestra played dutifully and, mostly, accurately.

John Rhodes


1 thought on “A Dark, Sinister <i>Queen of Spades</i>”

  1. So what if the children’s chorus and masque are not in Pushkin. This was supposed to be a production of Tchaikovsky’s opera – and those items and other ‘fripperies’ – whatever they may be – are essential to this superbly plotted masterpiece. As usual, the director knows better than the composer.


Leave a Comment