Wednesday 16 January 2019

The Queen of Spades at the Royal, or Just Wait Till Tchaikovsky Attempts Suicide With His Own Quill Pen

I'm not quite sure why I booked to see this. I previously ticked off The Queen of Spades the last time the Royal Opera revived its previous production, and it hadn't stuck in my head as a work I desperately wanted to revisit. I'd seen two Herheim productions and not been wowed by either of them - particularly not his version of La Cenerentola which played at the EIF last summer. As this long afternoon dragged on I'm afraid I was increasingly eager for the finish.

The best of the performance came in Act 2 Scene 2 thanks to Felicity Palmer's electrifying Countess. In her lieder like aria of reminiscence, Palmer's voice sank almost to a whisper. There was a palpable deepening of the stillness in the auditorium (a few coughs notwithstanding) - it was one of the rare moments when I felt the show was really holding the audience. There was also fine work from Vladimir Stoyanov (Yeletsky) in his big aria (particularly commendable given the amount of silly things Herheim gives him to do), and from the Chorus in the religious chorale like passage towards the conclusion.

But, sadly, this was not a strong enough performance musically to transcend the production (of which more shortly). As Gherman Aleksandrs Antonenko certainly had volume, at least at the upper end of his register. But he tended to bark, the tone often lacked warmth, and I wasn't always entirely convinced about tuning. Lower down he didn't always come over the orchestra. Eva-Marie Westbroek as Liza was stronger but not always to my ears completely comfortable. To be fair, neither were helped by the production. The supporting roles were solidly taken. The Royal Opera Chorus (apparently augmented though I can't say I was particularly struck by an increase in volume) sounded a bit tentative early on - and not always in precise harmony with the pit - but settled down as the afternoon progressed. The ROH Orchestra played typically well, but on the podium I felt Antonio Pappano didn't find quite enough sense of momentum - or maybe the trouble lay in the muddle of the production. On this hearing it struck me that this is a bitty score with some rather unmemorable sections and it didn't seem to me that Pappano succeeded in holding it together.

But the main problem with the afternoon was Herheim's production. It is rarely a good sign in my experience when the synopsis in the programme begins with an interpolation - in this case a biographical sketch of Tchaikovsky - some of the details of which were projected during the opening prelude. Herheim seems to have set the show in Tchaikovsky's drawing room. Yeletsky doubles as Tchaikovsky, and Gherman doubles as an unidentified man engaged in a sexual act with Tchaikovsky during the opening prelude and as Catherine the Great in the ballroom scene. Loosely it would seem that Tchaikovsky is imagining the whole of the opera but to what end never became clear to me - as far as I was concerned it was a conceit unilluminating of either the life of Tchaikovsky or the story of The Queen of Spades.

One of the biggest confusions concerns the doubling of Tchaikovsky and Yeletsky. I'd not read the cast list with sufficient care so I didn't realise this was going on until the man who up until that point I had assumed to be Tchaikovsky suddenly broke into song. Except when Yeletsky was actually singing it was often very unclear to me whether Stoyanov was being him or Tchaikovsky - I suspect that the periodic removal or donning of jackets was supposed to be clarifying, but as far as I was concerned it wasn't (there's a fair bit of weird partial costume removal in this show though we are at least spared gratuitous nudity). It's also worth noting that Herheim has been here before - that EIF Cenerentola featured Rossini onstage conducting and directing proceedings to about as useful an effect. I can't help feeling this is a directorial tick that could do to be rested.

Movement for which it seems Herheim is also responsible is poor. There's far too much aimless wandering. Too often I found myself baffled as to why characters were going off-stage, or coming on, or lying down with birdcages or stabbing themselves with their own quill pens. The set is also very mobile (again reminiscent of that Cenerentola) but again I often found myself wondering why it was revolving at particular moments - I began to feel that it was to do with the fact that Herheim had suddenly realised that if he didn't revolve it he hadn't enough space for the chorus to come on.

Some segments I just found completely baffling - in which category I would place the pastoral entertainment at Yeletsky's party, and the quill pen stabbing episode when Stoyanov was incomprehensibly joined by a trio of dancers with a number of such pens sticking out of various parts of their anatomy.

Once Felicity Palmer's Countess was bumped off I got increasingly bored. The production seemed to run out of steam, and had long since succeeded in making me not care about the fates of any of the characters. Palmer's Countess and (to a lesser extent) Stoyanov's Yeletsky are worth hearing, but overall this was a dull, muddled afternoon.

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