Tchaikovsky composed The Queen of Spades in the astonishingly short period of six weeks, and it is an unbeatable and taut realisation of obsession and betrayal, brought to life by the wretched Gherman, who throws over Liza, the love of his life, for the gambling secret of the “tri karty” (three cards) held by Liza’s grandmother, a legendary beauty once known as the Moscow Venus. The story ends badly, with the three leads dying from shock or suicide. Gherman’s obsession and his increasingly frail hold on reality have delivered some excellent productions, and now there is Stefan Herheim’s, developed with the dramaturg Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach, a co-production with Dutch National Opera and first seen in Amsterdam in June 2016.
Herheim and Meier-Dörzenbach are the must-have team for European opera-houses, and they brought their vision of Pelléas et Mélisande to Glyndebourne last year, to a rather baffled reception. This Queen of Spades, while easier to follow, is exposed to no less an elaborate agenda. Captions projected on to the front curtain during the introduction provide information about the composer’s disastrous marriage intended to conceal his homosexuality and about his supposed suicide from drinking cholera-infected water; the very next thing we see is Tchaikovsky paying to pleasure a military rent-boy who turns out to be Gherman; and there is further copious explanatory material in the printed programme (never a good sign – a production should explain itself).
The composer himself (shared with Prince Yeletsky, Liza’s hapless but safe fiancé) becomes the dominant character, hardly ever off the stage, in the white-hot grip of writing his opera in an elegant salon dominated by the sombre portrait of a woman who might be his mother (who died, of cholera, when Tchaikovsky was fourteen), or his wife, or Liza, or the Countess in her prime. All the characters he has created relate to him first, then to each other, so that you get some peculiar re-alignments of who is addressing whom, and he empathises with them strongly. It is fair to say that those who know and even identify with this opera in particular and with the turbulent detail of the composer’s life in general will get the most out of Herheim and Meier-Dörzenbach’s imposed and flashily psycho-analytical narrative.
The problem with a concept inflated to bursting point with characters surrounded by a retinue of clones of themselves, or by the significance of a music-box of clockwork birds (which refers later to the Mozartean Pastorale inserted into the Act Two ball) is that you are constantly scratching your head as to their real relevance (as Herheim intends), and this puts a distance between you and the characters, to the extent that Liza, in particular, virtually disappears.
Herheim delivers some extravagant moments – in the ball scene his by-now overused fourth-wall dissolution, with the audience reflected by giant mirrors (yawn) as the chorus parades through the stalls to greet the climactic arrival of the Empress Catherine (here Gherman in drag); or the entombment of the dead Countess within Tchaikovsky’s piano, done with pantomime-style panache; or weird details like a trio of near-naked Tchaikovsky clones pierced, St Sebastian-like, by quills; or Tchaikovsky silently pounding the score out of his piano like a lurid Liberace caricature – and Philipp Fürhofer’s sets and costumes are prodigiously glamorous. This is a spectacular show, no question. And there is also no question about Herheim’s flair for manipulating layers of meaning and emotional response, here, though, fatally at the expense of focus and engagement.
Things are not redeemed by the singing. Aleksandr Antonenko’s Gherman is a far remove from the tortured, socially inadequate misfit described in the opening scene, and his loutish presence is matched by some shockingly unruly singing. How, why was he cast? Eva-Maria Westbroek’s genius for getting inside a role is obliterated by the staging, and vocally she only comes anywhere near her usual form in Liza’s pre-suicide duet with Gherman. As the Countess, Felicity Palmer steals the show with a beautifully sung, internalised lament for her past glories, but it is hardly enough to carry the evening. When not in Tchaikovsky mode, Vladimir Stoyanov is a persuasive, conventional Yeletsky, and his finely sung aria, one of the opera’s few numbers, reminds how completely Tchaikovsky joins up drama, lyrical beauty and devastatingly perceptive characterisation in what for many is his greatest work. There is an excellent Count Tomsky from John Lundgren, and Anna Goryachova as a trouser-wearing Paulina, Liza’s closest friend, is suddenly overwhelming in her short song.
You wonder about the role of Antonio Pappano in some of the casting and much of the staging, but he and his orchestra get to the heart of this amazing score, while Herheim and Meier-Dörzenbach take their over-thought and overwrought aim at its head.
At the end, the audience seemed stunned into submission, with only Palmer and Pappano generating anything like enthusiastic applause, and the directorial team’s reception was decidedly muted.
- Royal Opera House www.roh.org.uk
- Shown in cinemas on January 22
- Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on April 19