ENO’s Production Undermines Virtues of The Queen of Spades

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, The Queen of Spades: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of the English National Opera / Edward Gardner (conductor). Coliseum, London, 9.6.2015 (MB)

(sung in English)

Hermann – Peter Hoare
Count Tomsky – Gregory Dahl
Prince Yeletsky – Nicholas Pallesen
The Countess – Dame Felicity Palmer
Lisa – Giselle Allen
Pauline – Catherine Young
Chekalinsky – Colin Judson
Surin – Wyn Pencarreg
Chaplitsky – Peter van Hulle
Narumov – Charles Johnston
Governess – Katie Bird


David Alden (director)
Gideon Davey (designs)
Wolfgang Goebbel (lighting)
Lorena Randi (choreography)


Oh dear! What a maddeningly inconsistent director David Alden is. Or is he maddeningly consistent, his productions suiting some works, or perhaps better, some swathes of the repertoire, better than others? His ENO Peter Grimes was a brilliant reassessment of a work that is weaker than partisans allow; it engaged with Britten’s opera at a level deeper than most have dared. This Queen of Spades barely engages with Tchaikovsky’s opera at all. I cannot help but conclude that high Romanticism – call it what one will – is really not Alden’s thing. He exhibits no sympathy for any of the characters, nor for their predicament. He seems to have no interest in the plot, not even to deconstruct it. All we have is a tiresome parade of clichés, as if designed to rouse the ire of operatic ‘conservatives’ and nothing more. Dark glasses, piles of chairs, unmotivated cross-dressing, a ragbag assemblage of costumes from different periods (the Kruschchev era (?) meets something older, though not of course Tchaikovsky’s brand of Mozartiana, and with no real sense of interplay), a hospital ward, extras who are not extras but are treated as such until they are not, party guests with animal masks: all these and more put in their mandatory appearances. Contemptuously tossed bank notes might make a point, but it is all but drowned under the frenetic, meaningless goings on. Is there a hint that the Countess is a gay icon, even a drag queen? Perhaps, but it is taken no further. And why does the clock never reach twelve, even when we are told that it does? (This audience member was long past caring!) My fear was that everything lay in Hermann’s – or rather Alden’s – tortured, or careless, mind. What a novel idea! If you despise the opera and everything surrounding it quite so much, if you really think it so clichéd that you have nothing to add beyond further cliché, might there not be a degree of integrity in leaving it to the care of another director?

The orchestra, however, sounded terrific, as it generally does now, especially under Edward Gardner. Precision, weight, delicacy: all were present. If only Gardner’s prowess as an orchestral trainer were matched by insight into the score. His conducting was often stiff, save when he accelerated too quickly. There were moments of repose, not least in the realm of Mozartian parody (which Gardner clearly esteems more highly than Alden), but there was little to indicate a longer line. Continuity was fractured less than on stage, but Tchaikovsky needs more than that. The chorus was on fine form too, its virtues – and its acting, however misplaced – every inch the equal of the orchestral performance.

ENO also offered a splendid cast. Peter Hoare proved an unusually thoughtful Hermann, his detailed attention to the text (that is, to words and music) exemplary throughout. Giselle Allen’s Lisa provided a near-ideal mixture of, or perhaps better confrontation between, coldness and warmth; her confidante, Pauline (Catherine Young) mirroring and to an extent extending such qualities on her smaller scale. What on earth Alden was thinking of in her case, I hardly dare consider. Felicity Palmer retains the most formidable star quality; her Grétry aria was as moving as anything we heard. For once, a degree of stillness! The richness of Nicolas Pallessen’s baritone proved a welcome luxury in the role of Prince Yeletsky. Despite the absurdities of the production at large, there was always a proper sense of interaction between all on stage; almost all excelled. What a pity, then, that the director seemed determined to undermine, even to negate, such manifest virtues.

Mark Berry

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