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A Less Than Regal Queen of Spades

Royal Opera House
01/13/2019 -  & January 16, 19, 22, 25*, 28, 2019
Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky: The Queen of Spades, opus 68
Aleksandrs Antonenko (Gherman), Alexander Kravets (Chekalinsky), Tigran Matirossian (Surin), John Lundgren (Count Tomsky/Zlatogor), Vladimir Stoyanov (Tchaikovsky/Prince Yeletsky), Felicity Palmer (Countess), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Liza), Anna Goryachova (Paulina/Milozvar), Renata Skarelyte (Masha), Louise Winter (Governess), Harry Nicoll (Master of Ceremonies), Jacquelyn Stucker (Prilepa), Konu Kim (Chaplitsky), Michael Mofidian (Narumov)
Royal Opera Chorus, William Spaulding (director), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor)
Stefan Herheim (production), Philipp Fürhofer (designer), Bernd Purkrabek (lights)

(© Catherine Ashmore)

In an uncharacteristically sheepish moment a few years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged in an interview that Tchaikovsky was gay, but added “we don’t love him because of that.” The issue of the composer’s sexuality has gone through a bizarre arc in Russia, where it was widely known and of no significant professional impediment (if not openly discussed) during his lifetime, airbrushed out of his official Soviet biographies, hesitantly acknowledged for about two decades after communism, and, since the time of Putin’s comment, again suppressed. A recent Russian biopic of the composer’s life did not mention it at all, and many of Russia’s chief cultural bureaucrats now deny it altogether or dismiss it with facile comments on the order of “he just couldn’t find the right woman.”

Director Stefan Herheim’s production of The Queen of Spades, which premiered at the Dutch National Opera in 2016 and has reached the Royal Opera, offers a passionate riposte to Tchaikovsky’s modern negators. Herheim’s vision places the composer himself at the opera’s very center. Throughout the performance, a live Tchaikovsky character alternates between composing the music as it unfolds and entering the action to take the role of Prince Yeletsky, the stale and nauseatingly sincere suitor of the opera’s ill-fated heroine Liza. The curtain rises on a weird pantomime of the emotionally tortured composer paying off a German-speaking officer – the opera’s Gherman (the Russian appellation of “Hermann,” for a language without the letter “h”) – for a purely transactional sex act that has just concluded. Gherman mocks and rejects him before storming off, leaving one to wonder whether the opera forming in Tchaikovsky’s imagination is really an attempt to eviscerate a real-life tormentor through art. As the music begins, Tchaikovsky composes and composes, only to intervene when he, as Yeletsky, enters the action to stare down Gherman or make professions of love to Liza that are hollow because he has no attraction to women rather than because he is merely boring. He is tormented by the opera’s ironic choruses, which champion the brighter side of life in stark contrast with the opera’s spectral gloom and its horrific subconscious effects. To illustrate the psychological trauma at work, the entire male chorus is dressed up in costumes identical to the Tchaikovsky character, suggesting that it might be collective a reflection of his psyche. Dressing the women’s chorus as Liza or her grandmother, the old countess who knows the secret of the three cards that will allow Gherman to win the fortune to marry Liza, introduces a threatening female archetype to add to Tchaikovsky’s torment.

By the end, we wonder whether the composer has really even left his mind. The only set is an elegant drawing room where he labors on the score. The other characters pop in and out as necessary, the choristers often carrying illuminated glasses containing a fatal concoction – the choleric water that the composer mortally ingested. Some of the scenic effects are imaginative. The room’s immense chandelier, for example, swings back and forth in the motion of the censer (complete with a grand cloud of incense smoke) that the obsessed Gherman visualizes during the countess’s funeral after he causes her death and just before her ghost haunts him. The second act ball scene benefits from an expansion of the walls and deployment of a large mirror to reflect the audience (to whom the conductor turns to conduct in the anthem that heralds Catherine the Great’s arrival). Amid all the grandeur, we can forgive Herheim for recycling the effect from the finale of his Bayreuth production of Wagner’s Parsifal. Overall, however, the emphasis on Tchaikovsky seems overengineered. The preperformance show curtain announces in bold letters that he suffered terribly for his sexuality and repeats the canard that his death in 1893 was likely a suicide to which he was driven by his inner torment. Virtually all scholars, however, including the composer’s most recent biographer Philip Ross Bullock, who also wrote this production’s relevant program note, believe he died of cholera in a city-wide epidemic. Too often the trope of suicidal suffering overwhelms the opera’s already copious inner tensions, which were derived from Alexander Pushkin’s brilliant novella, and makes us forget that this is a real, if fractured, love story featuring a heterosexual male lead so passionate and so true to life that Tchaikovsky wept for his sad fate as he completed the score. Here Gherman and Liza barely have time or space to develop their characters, really only coalescing in the final scene. One can conclude that Herheim simply tried to do too much, or at least more than the work could bear.

Aleksanders Antonenko, the evening’s Gherman, has not been in the best of voice lately. His Radamès in Verdi’s Aida at the Metropolitan Opera last fall lacked consistency. Early in this performance, the character’s elegiac self-pity was further tortured by an unfortunate warble. As time went on, however, he seemed to recover and delivered a much tighter performance, delivering Gherman’s nihilistic aria about life being a game with hair-raising intensity. Eva-Maria Westbroek had the opposite trajectory. Well supported sounds early on, minus a high note or two, yielded unsympathetically to a wavering pitch by the end of the performance. Bulgarian baritone Vladimir Stoyanov acted well as Tchaikovsky in his Covent Garden debut, but, in what could have been a fault of the production, his interventions as Yeletsky sounded too aged to be a credible suitor and rival. John Lundgren, who also sings Wotan in Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, was luxuriously cast as Gherman’s friend and the work’s principal narrator Count Tomsky. And Dame Felicity Palmer’s Countess graced the company with a true treasure of captivatingly dramatic intensity. The Royal Opera’s music director Sir Antonio Pappano led an energetic performance, while the chorus, directed by William Spaulding, gave its ironic commentary with devastating focus and excellent Russian diction.

Paul du Quenoy



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