What an utterly miraculous score this is! I doubt if Tchaikovsky wrote anything finer than the scene in the Countess’ bedroom and the following nightmarish haunting scene at the St Petersburg barracks. The Queen of Spades is a score that has run through my musical and professional life back to before I embarked on higher education. I was fortunate enough to work as a lowly assistant stage manager on New Sussex Opera’s production helmed by a promising young director, Nick Hytner, and a cast including John Treleavan, William Shimmell and Patricia O’Neil. Hytner took his cue from the original Pushkin and set the whole opera in the madhouse in which the crazed Herman is incarcerated. I may be looking back through rose-tinted memory but that production still strikes me as one of the best that I’ve experienced. Alas, since then, apart from Graham Vick’s excellent Glyndebourne production, I have suffered a series of bitter disappointments ranging from Richard Jones’ inexplicably overpraised WNO version – complete with wobbly skeleton -through Francesca Zambello’s disastrous heap-of-snow ROH outing and, most recently, David Alden’s dowdy ENO production which seemed little more than a collection of rehashed ideas from his previous shows. Finally this year my luck changed with Stefan Herheim’s dazzlingly inventive and technically jaw-dropping production for Dutch National Opera, boasting a top notch cast and the luxurious underpinning of the Concertgebouw under Mariss Jansons. This production used a bold Regie concept while never betraying Tchaikovsky and Pushkin in the way that several of the previously mentioned culprits were most definitely guilty of.
Obviously, expecting Opera Holland Park to match that level of achievement on a fraction of the budget would be absurd. Nevertheless my expectations remained high. The company has had one of its most successful seasons yet with a consistently high score rate from both critics and patrons alike. The cast, at least on paper, appeared very promising and conducting duties were in the safe hands of Peter Robinson. That the final result fell slightly below expectation cannot be attributed to any single failure but rather to a series of near misses.
Firstly, Robinson’s conducting never quite achieved the lift-off that one hoped for, managing neither the nervy, febrile intensity of Gergiev (probably still the most thrilling interpretation of my experience) nor the luxurious Sturm und Drang of Jansons or Haitink. The glorious Act I prelude is a telling indicator of the success of the rest of the evening – Jansons actually moved me to tears with the segue into the love theme. Last night Robinson still appeared to be finding his feet – the wonderful apposition of the love theme played by the strings against the rising brass theme was off kilter because the strings (inevitably less than originally specified by Tchaikovsky) were swamped by the over-eager brass. Fortunately balance improved and Robinson and the orchestra were much better later in the work – the restless unease of the introduction to the Countess’ bedroom scene was ideal and the gradual build of the supernatural storm climaxing in the appearance of the Countess’ ghost was truly thrilling.
The chorus, despite a couple of moments where they parted company from the pit, were as strong as they have been all season and thrilled with the act-closing greeting to the Empress and the raucous gamblers’ song. Several members also contributed with confidently voiced solo lines. It continues to be heartening to note how strong this chorus has become and a tribute to chorus master, Philip Voldman.
I was eagerly anticipating Peter Wedd’s Herman after his recent successes as Lohengrin, Tristan and the Prince (Rusalka). He certainly looks the part with his almost albino hair and crazed look conjuring up memories of Paul Bettany’s assassin in Dan Brown’s nonsensical DaVinci Code. Wedd’s voice is powerful and rides the thick orchestration easily. He is also well able to sing quietly too – some of his best moments were almost whispered. However, one has to note that there isn’t much nuance in between these extremes. Unfortunately on this occasion neither of the climactic money notes came off particularly well. Wedd was completely believable as the obsessive loner but, probably not helped by the production, he failed to capture the Byronic attraction that the character must have to make one believe that Liza would fall so disastrously for him.
Natalya Romaniw recently had an unalloyed triumph as Tchaikovsky’s Tatiana at Garsington Opera. Liza is a significant step up the heft scale and, very occasionally, one could hear the strain telling. Most notably the climax of the River Neva aria didn’t quite come off. Elsewhere this was a really lovely performance – the Act II hymn to the night was gorgeous, as was her contribution the ensuing confrontation with Herman. If the character at present only felt sketched rather than fully realised much of that can be laid at the door of Tchaikovsky, who never really developed the character to the levels he achieved with Tatiana.
Rosalind Plowright’s marvellously cantankerous Countess was a total triumph. Encased beetle-like in a terrifying black dress she drew from visual sources as varied as Miss Havisham, Sondheim’s Madame Armfeldt and Antony Sher’s bottled-spider Richard III. Her whiplash delivery of the withering put-down contrasted perfectly with the pathos and wistful regret of her Gretry Coeur de Lion air. Indeed, this scene was the highlight of an uneven production. Unfortunately her later supernatural appearances were disappointingly literal – suggestion would have been far more effective and scary.
Richard Burkhard’s faintly Mephistophelean Count Tomsky was a strong presence throughout, although his Act I retelling of the Countess’ backstory didn’t quite come off dramatically or musically. This aria should be a sure-fire applause winner but, partly down to pacing and unhelpful placing too far upstage, it failed to catch fire. His final song in the gambling den was much more effective.
Yeletsky is an ungrateful part except, of course, for once glorious lyrical outpouring in Act II. Probably the most famous aria in the whole opera, it carries the unfortunate load of association with some extremely illustrious past exponents. Grant Doyle was perfectly respectable, apart from a slightly ungainly lunge to the high F, but never quite achieved the hoped for heights. There is almost nothing else to the part but Doyle was a dignified presence while all around him careered off the emotional rails.
The Queen of Spades is chock full of rewarding small parts, all of whom get their opportunity to shine. Laura Woods (Polina) seized those opportunities with both hands, singing splendidly in the mournful aria in Liza’s bedroom as well as the lively Russian folk dance that follows. She also had plenty of fun in the tastefully staged Pastorale along with Daisy Brown’s prettily sung Prilepa. Brown also doubled up as Liza’s maid Masha and led the spirited folk dance.
The secondary officers, Chekalinsky and Surin, are far more important than most productions allow, as they embody Herman’s shame at being foreign and poor and the metal torment they subject him to is a significant factor in his tip from obsession towards madness. On this occasion the pair was unbalanced as Aled Hall, characterful but definitely having far too much fun, almost completely eclipsed Simon Wilding’s Surin.
Rodula Gaitanou’s production was infuriatingly uneven. At its best it was as good as any I’ve seen – the scene in the Countess’ bedroom was rivetingly staged and dripped with the mix of suppressed eroticism and threat which pervade the masterful writing. With both Wedd and Plowright performing as if their lives depended on it, this was operatic staging of a high order. But one has to set against that some damningly clumsy moments including some tortuously unnecessary piano moving and a completely incomprehensible climax to the ball scene in which the chorus suddenly transformed into satirical commedia dell’arte groups. At least I think that was the intention. But who knows? Another low point was reached with acres of distracting business continuing stage right throughout Liza’s big Act III scene – this was an inexcusable demonstration of lack of trust in the artist and the material. Fortunately Gaitanou pulled it back together for a tightly staged gambling den scene, although I could have done without the “too, too solid flesh” of the Countess and Liza’s ghostly apparitions.
There is already enough in this production to make it a rewarding experience. Making the step to the next level of achievement will partly come from the musical side settling as the run continues but will also need the directorial team to take some ruthless shears to misconceived or unnecessary production aspects. If both these happen OHP will have another outright winner on its hands.
(Photos : Robert Workman)