It is McDonald’s first time working on Queen of Spades though he has designed both Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin and Prokofiev’s The Gambler. Prokofiev’s opera has much common with Queen of Spades and McDonald feels that Tchaikovsky’s compulsive music re-occurs in the Prokofiev. For McDonald, Queen of Spades is an powerful opera, one he feels might be finer than Eugene Onegin. Tchaikovsky wrote it very quickly, McDonald describes the rich score as a masterpiece, full of driven undercurrents and with the leitmotif of fate.
A lover of Russian culture, McDonald first saw Queen of Spades at Welsh National Opera in the 1970’s and loved it, finding the piece incredible. He feels that there is an element of Tchaikovsky and his brother Modest (who wrote the libretto) in each of the characters. Each character in the opera is damaged in some way, each on a destructive course. It is a tragic piece and whilst none of the characters is completely likeable, McDonald would hope that we empathise with them; that we feel for them, for the pain that they suffer. It is this which gives us a link to the piece.
McDonald talks of Hermann’s outsider status as being comparable to that of Peter Grimes. Hermann is of German extraction in Russia. He has few friends and the ones that he has tease and torture him. The role of Hermann is a particularly taxing one, as the character is in every scene. But, as McDonald puts it, the Hermann goes on a hell of a journey. The difficulty is to make sure that the character does not go too crazy, too soon; to ensure that we, the audience, empathise with him.
We talked about the language of the opera and the difference between singing in Russian and in English. McDonald’s love of Russian culture means that he feels that it is a great language which is beautiful to sing in. He worries that the opera loses something when sung in English and is glad that the Grange Park Opera performances are in Russian.
Pushkin’s original novella, on which Modest based his libretto, is very different to the opera. Modest made many changes, there is no Yeletsky, Lisa marries at the end to someone quite conventional, Tomsky is the grandson of the Countess and Hermann end up in an asylum at the end. In fact Modest originally wrote the libretto for someone else and Tchaikovsky only came to the project later.
McDonald’s great love of Russian culture extends to an enormous collection of books on Russia. This love of Russian culture has fed into the design and direction process for Queen of Spades. One name that crops up in our conversation is that of Chekov. He has designed one Chekov play and would love to do more. He cites the interesting fact that Chekov met Tchaikovsky and in fact the two wanted to work together. He finds that he arrives at the direction through the design. When he enters the studio he already has a clear idea of the basics of the design in his head, knows what the scene should be and where the entrances and exits will be.
McDonald is both designing and directing Queen of Spades. He has worked in these dual roles at Grange Park before on Dvorak’s Rusalka, a profoundly beautiful and thought provoking production; as well as being in the middle of a Ring cycle for Nationale Reisopera. But he continues to design for other directors. He says that he has been lucky to work with some great directors (regular collaborators include Richard Jones and Tim Albery). McDonald finds working with another director stimulating, that he is constantly learning. The problem is to find a balance between designing his own projects and designing for others, time constraints can be difficult and it is a delicate balancing act; but one which McDonald finds worthwhile.
McDonald has designed and directed both opera, spoken theatre and musicals as well as designing for ballet. He enjoys working in the different mediums, but especially likes designing for dance. He has designed both Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker for Scottish Ballet and would love to work on Swan Lake. McDonald doesn’t differentiate between opera, spoken theatre and dance, for him each piece is different with a different set of demands.
When asked what works he would like to work on he immediately cites Chekov. In opera he finds that he is not drawn to Italian opera, though does love Verdi’s Don Carlos and Puccini’s Fanciulla de West. He has done quite a lot of Janacek and would love to do more. He has directed one Lehar operetta and finds the idea of directing more of these appealing. He also mentions Reynaldo Hahn, particularly his opera Merchant of Venice as well as Massenet’s Thais.
After Queen of Spades at Grange Park Opera, his attention turns to Götterdämmerung which he is designing and directing for Nationale Reisopera in the Netherlands in the autumn. He is also designing Martinu’s Julietta for Richard Jones’s production at English National Opera and Makropoulos Case, also with Jones for Frankfurt Opera. Further ahead he will be designing and directing Lohengrin for Welsh National Opera next summer.
|Grange Park Opera (photo Claire Routh)|