This new production of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece should have been a crowning swan song at the end of Edward Gardner’s tenure as musical director at ENO. This season has already given us the triumphs of Otello and Meistersinger; both productions which succeeded through strength of principal casting allied to strong productions and backed up by a company on top form. That The Queen of Spades failed to rise to these heights and, in several areas fell woefully short of levels that we had hoped for, can be attributed to several factors.

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One was casting problems but undoubtedly the most significant contributory cause was the production by David Alden. Alden’s excellent production of Otello had succeeded by playing comparatively straight and even the odd unexpected turns decisively emanated from the libretto or the original source material. Faced with Tchaikovsky’s grand gothic romance cum ghost story, Alden’s reaction seemed to be to play constantly against the material and the music. So, for example, when the chorus sing of enjoying a glorious summer’s day they could hardly look less enchanted, though this may possibly be because they are wrapped up in full Russian winter garb and stood in serried ranks, glaring at the audience. Worse still, Alden resorted to all the hoary old clichés that beset so many Regie productions. So we were presented with ugly flat sets mercilessly raked with low level lights, a heap of furniture which appeared in four different locations (apparently no Russian home complete without one!), fluorescent tubes, hospital beds, wall clutching, and frenetic chorus dancing. Surprisingly there was a complete lack of furniture abuse, which will disappoint those hoping for a full Alden Bingo card.

Alden also seemed unable to make up his mind which period the work was set in. Obviously the specified period of the reign of Catherine the Great (mentioned more than once) would be far too easy, so in the opening scene we appear to be in a Stalinist period sanatorium. Let us ignore for now the problems created by removing the work from a society where class and station are the guiding factors affecting the characters, particularly the foreign, impoverished Hermann. Accepting the revised period it therefore comes as a surprise when the salon of Lisa appears to be populated by a casting call for Abigail’s Party. For the Grand Ball we head back to Stalinist times, though they are enlivened by some comical character heads straight out of a very cut-price theme park. And so on…

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Alden also slews the characters away from Tchaikovsky’s intentions, not always to their (or our) advantage. Hermann is the one character played pretty much to the original template, although some aspects fail to convince – such as his physical, almost sexual molestation of the Countess in her boudoir. Even more odd is Alden’s decision to keep Hermann onstage at the climax of the ball scene, when the music clearly indicates a hurried exit. At the moment when Hermann should be rushing, with obsessive single-mindedness, to the Countess’ bedroom to force the secret from her, Alden would have us believe that the character remains behind to prostrate himself in front of the Tsarina.

However other characters are changed beyond recognition. Tomsky, one of the few wholly sympathetic characters, is transformed into an unpleasant chain-smoking pimp. Yeletsky becomes a needy bully which makes his gorgeous, loving aria a bit of a stretch for the character. Poor Pauline is turned from a delightful, lively girl (first cousin to Onegin’s Olga) into a dipsomaniac tart reeling embarrassingly around the room in Act II and then being gang raped by the gamblers in the final scene. Chekalinsky and Surin become a bizarrely mismatched double act with the former all tight buttoned smartness and luminous red hair while the latter appears to be living on the street. He later appears in Lisa’s big final scene in order to leave a bottle with which to slash her throat (there being no icy River Neva nearby to facilitate her fatal exit)

Lisa and the Countess are played comparatively straight, though the former’s costumes are clearly all chosen from Maison Dowdy. Felicity Palmer’s formidable Countess must be glad to avoid the bath time indignities inflicted on singers playing the role in Richard Jones’ WNO production but, I imagine, less thrilled that her ghostly manifestation is reduced to an underwhelming projection. One of the projections appears in the face of an omnipresent clock which remains, tantalisingly, set at 2 minutes to midnight regardless of the scene. However, disappointingly, in the one scene in which it is vital that midnight strikes, the clock utterly fails to deliver.

Musically, I am glad to say, the evening was considerably more impressive. While Gardner doesn’t quite achieve the miraculous synthesis of nervy lushness of a Gergiev or Rostropovich, he nevertheless conjures gorgeous sound from the ENO orchestra who are currently in world beating form. I can hardly wait for Tristan next season. The chorus are on equally fine form whether pinning us to our seats in the big onstage moments or racking up the hair-on-neck moments in the frequent offstage contributions.

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ENO has a history of eccentric casting in regard to the crucial role of Hermann. In the previous production the part was taken by Graham Clark who, despite numerous good qualities, is a long way from the golden-toned spinto that Tchaikovsky clearly envisaged. Continuing the theme ENO originally cast Peter Bronder, a first class Mime, in the role. Bronder exited in mysterious and unexplained circumstances and was replaced, fairly late in the day, by Peter Hoare. Obviously gratitude is due to him for stepping into the breach but it would be idle to pretend that the role suits him. The tone is simply too narrow and unglamorous to be appropriate and, at least on opening night, there were some noticeable missing top notes (worst at the climax of Act I and at the end of the second verse of “What is a life” (or the equivalent, in the rather clunky and inaccurate translation). On the plus side he is an excellent actor and he caught the mix of crazed obsessive and sympathetic character well.

Giselle Allen gave a top notch performance both vocally and dramatically. She encompassed the testing vocal range without any sign of strain and created a thoroughly sympathetic character. Her final scene was truly harrowing. A triumph. Felicity Palmer was a predictably dominating and scary Countess and the Gretry scene was wonderfully, subtly voiced and moving.

Nicholas Pallesen did full justice to Yeletsky’s aria which was one of the vocal highlights of the evening. I hope in future he will risk starting the final long note piano before swelling to forte but that is a minor quibble. Gregory Dahl was a slightly disappointing Tomsky (though that may be partly due to the distorted reading of the character foisted on him) with the voice neither rich enough at the lower end of the range or dominating enough at the top.

So, a curate’s egg of an evening but, nevertheless, another strong showing from Gardner and his glorious orchestra and chorus.

3 stars

Sebastian Petit

(Photos : Donald Cooper)

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