The Queen of Chairs, in Spades
This is musically an important event for the English National Opera and the musical side is superb. You will rarely hear a better sung and conducted version of this tense and tragic Tschaikovsky masterpiece than the ENO’s new production. English tenor Peter Hoare is making his debut as Hermann at relatively short notice and his singing and acting turn out to be heroic; committed, gorgeous to listen to, totally convincing. He understands Hermans’s torment and obsessions and how the music conveys them and he’s spot on portraying Hermann’s slow descent into madness and psychosis. Giselle Allen as Lisa is wonderful to listen to as well; with her shining voice and complete understanding of the score, she touchingly conveys Lisa’s troubled innocence. Dame Felicity Palmer, now in her seventies, is a dominant and powerful Countess; Nicholas Pallesen makes a striking, attractive and powerfully sung Prince Yeletsky.
The entire cast is musically strong, including the chorus; and Edward Gardner clearly understands the score, its drama, the sonorities and harmonies; he masters the forces throughout, giving one of the most powerful performances of this dark work that I’ve ever heard. Clearly he “gets” both the Tschaikovsky brothers’ collaboration on score and libretto as surely as he knows Pushkin’s original story. A pity it’s his farewell as the ENO’s Music Director (though he returns as a guest conductor next year for Tristan and Isolde, already hugely anticipated.)
That said, there is more , however, that must be included: a hard look at David Alden’s disjointed production concept that, for me, seriously undermines the success of the evening. There is a strange disconnect between his expressionistic, surreal approach to storytelling and the actual words and music being sung and played. To put it simply, Alden doesn’t seem to be engaged with the work itself; rather he is simply using it as an opportunity to impose and express his own visual and symbolic obsessions. There are some very fine moments , but I put those down mainly to singers and conductor who actually are one with the music and words and who have a clear understanding of what they want to convey.
Not to belabor my point: I didn’t find updating the story to Communist Russia actually added a thing; if anything, it was a distraction, especially in the ball scene and the places where a Grand Opera approach to emotion is required. The individual, one-on-one relationships and the monologues worked because of the fine cast; but the robotic chorus was a tedious trope.
I fear too that I am getting mighty tired of Alden’s chairs. Can anyone explain why he always has piles of chairs as part of his visual concept or his stage setting? People drag them across the stage while other people are trying to sing, thus distracting the audience from what should be the opera’s visual center, taking your eye to the wrong place at the wrong time; there’s no respite because they’re strewn everywhere. People climb them as if they were barricades (is this a not-too-subtle clue that there has been a Revolution?) and then declaim from atop the pile. Or they fall over and tumble down the pile. The chairs are symbolic, they are usually Biedermeyer or Baroque; and occasionally, it has to be admitted, someone even sits on them. Since chairs have been featured in every production of Alden’s that I have seen since for about three decades, I am still trying to puzzle out the thread that joins them chairily from Handel through Verdi through Tchaikovsky and beyond. Like so many other objects on David Alden’s stages, they seem both arbitrary and predictable.
Alden does, however, occasionally allow singers simply to present the key moments with some directness. Hermann’s stages of descent into craziness and Lisa’s obsessive-yet-touching passion for the anti-hero Hermann do get strongly conveyed, and Felicity Palmer gives us both the scariness and the fascinating personal charisma of the Countess. You can believe she was once a sexually alluring aristocrat—you can believe her harsh and autocratic behaviour. Hers is a strong, pivotal performance; and the scene where Hermann invades her bedroom to get the secret of the cards from her is brilliant, with Hoare and Palmer creating a sensational artistic rapport.
But what keeps the evening compelling (if you can ignore the damned chairs) must be Gardner’s understanding of the work and his pacing of the score; both are exemplary. The hymn-like choral conclusion after Hermann’s death was haunting and powerful, as it needs to be to round off this story.
There is a postscript that should, in the interests of even-handed journalism, be added here: Alden’s twin brother Christopher (also an opera director) works often in the United States; his Don Giovanni for the New York City Opera was updated to the 1930s (why?) and featured a cast made to drag chairs to and fro at random moments throughout the production. Though Wikipedia tells us that the twins were born in New York, to a “show-business family,” I’m willing to wager there’s a relative with a chair factory somewhere in that family tree.
The Queen of Spades is in repertoire at the Coliseum in London (along with Carmen and the Pirates of Penzance) until 2 July 2015. http://www.eno.org/whats-on/the-queen-of-spades