The Queen of Spades review – Herheim puts Tchaikovsky centre stage for stimulating frustration

Royal Opera House, London
Uninterested in the original story, the director stages the composer’s biography instead – leaving a big hole at the centre of this production

Experiencing the Royal Opera’s new Queen of Spades is like trying to watch a fireworks display stuck behind a tall person filming it on their mobile. The noise is tremendous; so are the sights, but you can see them only through someone else’s lens. The man with the phone in this scenario is director Stefan Herheim, and his lavish production, which baffled and excited audiences in Amsterdam in 2016, is an intelligent, compassionate, stimulating frustration.

Herheim, director of last season’s Vêpres Siciliennes, here is not half as interested in the story of Pushkin’s novella and Tchaikovsky’s opera as he is in the story of Tchaikovsky himself. In fact, forget Pushkin; this is all about Tchaikovsky. The composer was the toast of musical Russia; he was also a depressive, a gay man who had a breakdown following a disastrous marriage, someone who could plausibly have drunk the cholera-infected water that killed him in full awareness that it was contaminated. Knowledge of all this is crucial to understanding the next three hours on stage, and Herheim concedes us a few projected lines of explanation at the very start.

The next thing we see is Tchaikovsky himself – and from then on the composer is rarely out of sight, directing the action or taking it down as dictation with his quill. Sometimes he is surrounded by two-dozen chorus doppelgangers, brandishing glasses half full of iridescent cholera water. He is played by the baritone Vladimir Stoyanov, because this is not a silent role: Herheim has projected Tchaikovsky into the character of Yeletsky, the dull old prince who offers heroine Liza love and security only for her to gamble her honour and sanity on flaky antihero Gherman instead.

Mesmerising … Felicity Palmer as the Countess.
Mesmerising … Felicity Palmer as the Countess. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Yeletsky is normally a bit part, singing little except one of Tchaikovsky’s most ravishing arias – how beautifully Tchaikovsky wrote for the boring men in his operas, and how he must have craved ordinariness for himself! Here he is the star, although Herheim often has him looking silly or awkward, miming away at the piano like some 19th-century version of Animal from The Muppets, or disrupting any intimate scene between other characters.

The Royal Opera has not recently been a stranger to stagings about operas rather than of them: Barrie Kosky’s Carmen was a breath of fresh air. But Carmen is a hackneyed opera, and The Queen of Spades is not, and Herheim’s approach is so all-absorbing that Tchaikovsky’s characters are turned into ciphers. It’s brilliant, but there’s a big hole at its centre.

Stoyanov carries off his vastly expanded role, but the two conventional leads are less convincing, Eva-Maria Westbroek’s soprano misses the ideal innocence for Liza, and Aleksandrs Antonenko sings Gherman with a scything tenor that’s a blunt instrument, too often veering off pitch. The supporting cast, though, is excellent, including John Lundgren’s velvet-voiced Tomsky, and Felicity Palmer, mesmerising as the Old Countess. If this is indeed this remarkable singer’s last stage role, it’s a fittingly memorable one.

And this is a truly memorable staging: Philipp Fürhofer’s floor-to-ceiling sets are glorious, conjuring illuminated streets and bustling crowds as if by magic, thanks to huge black mirrors and Bernd Purkrabek’s sleight-of-hand lighting. The chorus and orchestra, lush and lyrical in response to Antonio Pappano’s propulsive conducting, will leave you yearning to hear them in more Tchaikovsky. It might also leave you with the desire to see a real, actual staging of The Queen of Spades.

Contributor

Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Queen of Spades – review
Opera North's new production of the Tchaikovsky opera was let down by the solo contributions, writes Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements

21, Oct, 2011 @5:00 PM

Article image
Opera Holland Park: The Queen of Spades review – decrepit Countess rules over vampiric high society
Rodula Gaitanou’s adaptation, superbly sung and conducted, takes us to a shadowy, nightmarish St Petersburg full of fear, neurosis – and Cossack dancing

Tim Ashley

03, Aug, 2016 @11:10 AM

Opera review: The Queen of Spades, Millennium Centre, Cardiff

Millennium Centre, Cardiff
There was room for improvement almost all round in this revival of Tchaikovsky's final Pushkin opera, says Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements

14, May, 2009 @11:01 PM

Article image
Fidelio review – Davidsen approaches greatness in uneven production
Tobias Kratzer’s new staging rips Beethoven’s only opera in two to bring contemporary resonance but little of the composer’s original vision, but the singing is superb

Tim Ashley

02, Mar, 2020 @11:17 AM

Article image
Billy Budd review – magnificently sung production is slow to focus
Deborah Warner’s version of Britten’s most conflicted opera takes too long to reach the dramatic intensity its superb singers merit

Andrew Clements

24, Apr, 2019 @11:02 AM

Article image
Carmen review – Bizet meets Busby Berkeley
Big numbers and bohemian loucheness characterise Barrie Kosky’s uneven production

Tim Ashley

07, Feb, 2018 @12:06 PM

Article image
Kát’a Kabanová review – angry and compelling, and musically faultless
Amanda Majeski brings unflinching veracity to Janáček’s tragic heroine, while Edward Gardner - in the pit - is magnificent

Tim Ashley

05, Feb, 2019 @11:38 AM

Article image
Agrippina review – DiDonato formidable as power-hungry empress
Joyce DiDonato gives one of her finest performances in Barrie Kosky’s witty and unnerving staging of Handel’s opera of political manipulation in ancient Rome

Tim Ashley

24, Sep, 2019 @11:32 AM

Article image
La Bohème review – exuberant and persuasive revival performed with elan
Conductor Emmanuel Villaume brings drive and intensity to Richard Jones’s detailed but inconsistent production of Puccini’s brilliantly written opera

Martin Kettle

13, Jan, 2020 @3:51 PM

Article image
From the House of the Dead review – formidable performances humanise Janáček's vision of hell
If Krzysztof Warlikowski’s staging loses focus at points, outstanding performances and Mark Wigglesworth’s conducting ensure this is a compelling evening

Tim Ashley

08, Mar, 2018 @2:27 PM