To a 6.30 p.m. dress rehearsal of a new production of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades (**) by the Royal Opera (a co-production with Dutch National Opera). Well, what is going on here? During the overture projected text informs the audience about Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality, his failed marriage, and his death (almost certainly suicide) due to cholera from drinking un-boiled water at a restaurant in St. Petersburg. Odd - I suspect the majority of the audience knew this already –something’s up. The curtains open, promisingly, on a rather traditional set of a 19th century drawing room with a grand piano, wood panelling and lots of glass panelled doors. A high-backed armchair faces away from us towards the fire-place. It appears that two people are sitting in the chair and seconds later one of them is propelled out of the chair onto the stage. He seems to be sporting the unmistakeable trimmed grey beard and receding hairline of the mature Tchaikovsky. Really! And the inescapable implication is that the chair has been the scene of gay sex. Soon after several of the other male characters come on stage greeted by “Tchaikovsky” who is actually the character Prince Yaletsky, if you were following the libretto or surtitles. Actually many of the characters look a bit like Tchaikovsky. The male chorus seems to be made up of Tchaikovskys!
What is going on? The opera, in the hands of Norwegian director Stephan Herheim, seems to be about Tchaikovsky. Periodically the composer/Yaletsky, who is surrounded by manuscript paper and from time to time mimes playing the piano (in case you were in any doubt), stands up and drinks a glass of (presumably) infected water and drops down dead. In one scene the Empress Catherine the Great appears (yes, this is in the original libretto – I’ve checked - but doesn’t fit with the 19th century set and costumes) but her costume falls to reveal………..yes, Tchaikovsky - and that isn’t in the book .
About four years ago I attended another Tchaikovsky opera, Eugene Onegin at the Royal Opera House. It was the directorial debut at the House of the then head of opera Kasper Holton. During the interval I got chatting to a very dapper elderly gent, and it turned out that Onegin was his favourite opera. Was he enjoying this production? No he wasn’t. Why I asked?. “Well,” he said “are my elderly eyes mistaken, but are there two Onegins and two Tatyana’s on stage at the same time?” I confirmed that there were, a singer and a similarly costumed dancer for each role. “Why?” he said. A bit puzzled myself, I ventured that modern directors feel they need to make their mark, and to get themselves into the press with controversial productions. “Well” he said with some emphasis.” I wish they wouldn’t.” And I must say I tend to agree. I suppose it doesn’t matter greatly if a new slant is is placed on the mainstays of the repertoire – Don Giovanni say, or Traviata – to bring freshness to what might otherwise pall. But when a work is new to the majority of the audience (The Queen of Spades was last performed at Covent Garden for a short run in 2006 and before that in 2001-2, and before that in 1961) what is needed is a safe production, well sung. This was not the case here, to such an extent that it was difficult to judge whether the work deserves the high place it is often given in the composer’s operatic canon. Among the singers what should have been a strong cast mostly disappointed though in fairness what Herheim asks of them doesn’t help. The finest performance vocally was that of Bulgarian baritone Vladimir Stoyanov in the role of Yeletsky (and also of course Tchaikovsky). His performance of the Prince’s aria in Act II scene 1 was sublime. In the performance I saw Eva-Maria Westbroek (Liza) was indisposed, but has since received mixed reviews. Her replacement at short notice, Scottish soprano Lee Bisset, sang and acted well under difficult circumstance. The biggest disappointment was Alexandrs Antonenko (Gherman) whose tenor voice sounded raw and inconsistent. Hopefully he improved as the run progressed. One felt for Felicity Palmer (in one of her signature roles: the Countess) in what is said to be her final opera. I hope she decides to give that wonderful mezzo-soprano one more outing in a more sympathetic production. As usual conductor Antonio Pappano and his orchestra and chorus gave their all.
Beware the celebrity director. I’m glad I didn’t pay £192 to see this.