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16 January 2019

Too many Tchaikovskys: The Queen of Spades at the Royal Opera House leaves you cold

It is inconceivable that anyone unfamiliar with the work could have the slightest idea what is going on.  

By Simon Callow

It is dispiriting to lead a review of a great, if problematic, work such as Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades with the director, but in this case, it is unavoidable: Stefan Herheim is all over this production. He may imagine that by making the composer himself the central figure in the work, he is drawing our attention to its intensely personal nature, but he is wrong. Every schoolboy knows that Tchaikovsky was self-obsessed, haunted by death and driven by compulsive desires for men; that he attempted to break out of this compulsion by marrying a former student. He died suddenly, apparently from cholera, having drunk infected water. His music is clearly informed by immense, sometimes overwhelming emotion, culminating in his devastating last symphony, the Pathétique, which ends, snuffed out, in a bleakness still unparalleled in the whole of the classical repertoire.

A quick summary of these biographical points is projected on to the Royal Opera House curtain before the action begins. In case we wonder about their relevance to the story, there is a helpful prologue before the music starts in which the composer (played by baritone Vladimir Stoyanov) performs a sexual act on a burly guardsman, who collects money from him and abuses him in German. This guardsman is the opera’s anti-hero, Gherman – who is indeed German. Before leaving, he winds up a musical birdcage, which plays a few bars of “Ein mädchen oder Weibchen” from The Magic Flute, a phrase that will feature later in the opera, and leaves the room, laughing maniacally.

Then and only then does Tchaikovsky’s  music start, when the composer goes to the piano and starts to create the gentle phrases with which the work begins. When the tragic theme into which it suddenly lurches is heard, a black-winged female angel of death enters. This is Liza, the opera’s tragic heroine. She leaves the room with Tchaikovsky dead upon the floor. But he is up on his pins soon enough, composing away at the piano, conducting the music, throwing around pages of the score.

He is not alone, because when the chorus comes on, they are all Tchaikovsky too. Shortly after, Stoyanov himself turns into the opera’s most sympathetic character, Prince Yeletsky, who is full of noble declarations of love for Liza – only to have them rejected because she, her head filled with romantic dreams of doomed outsiders, favours the ne’er-do-well Gherman. As it happens, Prince Yeletsky is an invention of Tchaikovsky and his brother Modest, who wrote the libretto, in their reworking of the Pushkin story, so Stoyanov’s playing the prince has its own internal logic, but it only compounds the narrative confusion.

It is inconceivable that anyone unfamiliar with the work could have the slightest idea what is going on. At a certain point, an eerily illuminated drinking glass enters the action, and like everything else in this mis-en-scène, is quickly multiplied, so that at one point the entire Tchaikovsky-cloned chorus is quaffing from the poisoned cups, falling down dead and getting up again. By now the audience has been so hammered over the head with these biographical allusions that one’s only regret is that they get up again; please put us all out of our misery. By the end of the action we are of course back at the beginning, with Liza (now actually properly dead) returned as the angel of death.

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Stefan Herheim is an extraordinarily ingenious and gifted director who seems to have no judgement at all. His Pelléas et Mélisande at Glyndebourne was simply bewildering; his La Cenerentola, in which – guess what? – the entire male chorus consisted of Rossini lookalikes, was heavy-handed and witless. His Parsifal at Bayreuth, compressing the whole of recent German history (and Bayreuth’s) into the opera’s three acts, counts as one of the greatest productions I have ever seen, physically, intellectually, technically – though in the end its very brilliance came between me and the music. And this is exactly the problem with The Queen of Spades. For all Antonio Pappano’s passionate and tender musical direction, and the orchestra’s glorious fullness of tone, the real story the music tells never registers.

And this leaves the singers in a sort of vacuum. The punishing high tenor role of Gherman is sung with unflagging clarity (if  uncertain pitch) by Aleksandrs Antonenko, but little nuance. The fine Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, in the difficult role of Liza, is unfailingly musical, but the general impression is muted. Felicity Palmer, feisty as ever, makes perhaps the strongest impact of the evening playing the Countess, never more so than when she sings her Grétry aria (barefoot in a starched white slip) up at the piano like a diseuse in a cabaret. But she is denied one of her great moments when she returns from the dead to tell Gherman the secret of the cards. She is banished off-stage and her words come out – somehow inevitably – of Tchaikovsky’s own mouth. Five stars to Stoyanov, omnipresent, whether as Tchaikovsky or as Yeletsky (his great love aria beautifully phrased and delivered), but it is an evening that leaves one cold and baffled. 

The Queen Of Spades
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Royal Opera House, London WC2

This article appears in the 16 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit trapped Britain