Monday 2 July 2012

Queen of Spades at Grange Park Opera

Carl Tanner (Herman) & Anne Sophie Duprels (Lisa), Queen of Spades - Grange Park Opera 2012 (Photography: Alastair Muir)
Carl Tanner (Herman) & Anne Sophie Duprels (Lisa)
Photography: Alastair Muir)
To Grange Park on a cool, but thankfully dry evening for the last performance of Anthony Macdonald's striking new production of Tchakovsky's Queen of Spades (30 June). Both designer and director, Macdonald set the production in Russia at the time of the work's composition. The first scene opened in a flexible, neutral space, pannelled walls, painted white and grey with wall-paper of a view of St. Petersburg. This would function as the outside space and the ball room. The centre of the stage was occupied by what appeared to be the outside of a rotunda. For the interior scenes, this turned round to create a small, claustrophobic interior space. Thus giving the opera's locations a confined feel; Macdonald's Russia was a place of hurried liasons in small places and draughty streets where friends meet.

The opera opened with a passionate account of the prelude from Stephen Barlow and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The first scene was wonderfully detailed, and what impressed throughout the opera was both the fantastically crisp performance from the chorus and the nicely resonant details in their dramatic performance. For the first scene they were joined by the well-drilled children of Twyford School, in a vividly presented series of vignettes. Timothy Dawkins and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as Surin and Tchekalinsky were very much part of the ensemble and brought out the sense, made clear in Pushkin's original novella, that Herman (Carl Tanner) is an outsider whom even his friends find funny. Dawkins and Lloyd-Robert's clearly laughing at Tanner, not with him.

Carl Tanner is an amazing find, a bear like man with a wonderfully robust spinto voice, from the outset his Herman was vivid and intense; human but very obsessive. Tanner has performed a lot in Europe and the USA but this was his first major role in the UK.

We only saw Lisa (Anne Sophie Duprels) and the Countess (Anne-Marie Owens) briefly in the first scene, but their relationship was made clear with Owens preternaturally upright bearing and her obsessive leaning on Duprels' arm. Duprels was almost unrecognisable in the down-trodden young woman. Her voice had also undergone a transformation, losing the tremulous quality and gaining firmness and dramatic intensity.

Sara Fulgoni (Polina) & chorus, Queen of Spades - Grange Park Opera 2012 (Photography: Alastair Muir)
Sara Fulgoni (Polina) & chorus(Photography: Alastair Muir)
This was brought out in the second scene, where the young woman are crammed together in the small, interior space, sewing together. Duprels blended beautifully in the duet with Polina (Sara Fulgoni). And Fulgoni was wonderful luxury casting in the role, singing her romance quite entrancingly. When she moved to the Russian folk-song, things got quite a bit out of hand with the young women taking both the women's and the men's roles in the dance, and getting up to some quite raunchy goings on. This seemed a theme of the opera, how the society itself was severely repressed.

The end of the scene, when Herman appears, was simply tremendous. Lisa was rather a big sing for Duprels, but here she showed no sign of strain and matched Tanner equally for passion and intensity. Tanner has a big, spinto voice which encompasses the role with apparent ease and with a fine lack of bluster. Macdonald seems to have helped his two protagonists into created a tensely vivid relationship. It never fails to amaze me how successfully the relatively small opera house at Grange Park responds to large scale pieces being performed. Of course, it helps enormously in having an accompanist as sympathetic as Stephen Barlow who, whilst obviously in strong symphathy with the score, ensured that soloists and orchestra were in good balance.

Queen of Spades - Grange Park Opera 2012 (Photography: Alastair Muir)
Chorus - Photography: Alastair Muir
In an interview that I had with him just before the production opened, Macdonald talked about how each of the principals in the opera is somehow damaged. His production did not take any one as the protagonist, this was neither a drama taking placing in Herman's head, nor a ghost story based around the Countess. Instead we had a very human conflict between fallible humans. This was very noticeable in the treatment of the Countess (Anne Marie Owens), who was old, inflexibly rigid and dictatorial, but clearly dependent on Lisa and by no means the caricatured harridan of some portrayals.

The ball scene in act 2 was rather riotous and you did wonder at the Countess being there at all. It being masked and in costume meant that the Countess could wear an 18th century costume which referenced the period of the old woman's youth in the original story. Tcheliansky and Surin's teasing of Herman was clearly not pleasant here and done in such a way as to make you wonder whether Herman was hearing voices in his head.

Quijran de Lang's Yeletsky was a slight and rather haunted figure. Profoundly sympathetic, his lyrical performance culminated in a wonderful account of his act 2 aria. Finely controlled,  musically phrased and with a nice line, but still imbued with passion.

This scene ended with the arrival of the Empress arriving through the auditorium, before the single interval. There was no intermezzo, which served to move the performance slightly away from grand opera and more towards personal and intimate drama.

Carl Tanner (Herman) & Anne-Marie Owens (The Countess), Queen of Spades - Grange Park Opera 2012 (Photography: Alastair Muir)
Carl Tanner (Herman) & Anne-Marie Owens (The Countess)
 (Photography: Alastair Muir)
The Countess's bedroom, a claustrophobic interior space, was dominated by a wall sized picture of the countess as the naked Venus of Moscow. It was behind here that Herman hid during the scene when the Countess was put to bed by her maids. The way the chorus barely fitted into this space contributed to the feeling of claustrophobia and helped drive the intensity of the scene between Herman and the Countess. Here was had a strong battle of wills, with both Tanner and Owens equally vivid in this scene.

The Countess's re-appearance as a ghost was done with nice effect, but without over much gothic horror, the essence of the scene being Tanner's striking account of Herman's steady mental deterioration; external symbols being indicators of his mental decline.

With Lisa and Herman by the canal, we came to the crux of the drama. The way the image of St. Petersburg on the wallpaper had windows lit up, was a neat scene painting touch, but Macdonald ensured that our attention was fully focussed on the two protagonists. This scene took Duprels to the limit of what her voice was capable of, and I'm not sure she would be wise to attempt the role in a bigger theatre. But her Lisa was a passionate, intense and tortured creature; very real and profoundly moving; conflicted in the way that you could see she ought to be in love with the better man (Yeletsky), but could not help herself.

Tanner was simply amazing, Herman is a big role and by the time we reached the canal scene, he had been on stage for a lot of time. But Tanner's voice seemed untiring and he projected Herman's gradual descent into obsession whilst preserving an element of sympathy, and sang with a strong sense of line - no wobbly blustering here.

For the gambling house, we had the male chorus crammed into the interior space, ensuring the overwhelmingly macho atmosphere. Something increased by the crude and lewd actions to Tomsky's song. Throughout the opera, Roman Ialcic had cut an impressive figure as Tomsky. His performance integrated into the ensemble rather than showy.

The entire scene was played with Lisa's body still lying at the side of the stage. And the relatively unshowy final appearance of the Countess's ghost helped to contribute to the intense feeling of Herman's ultimate mental breakdown; the elements of gothic horror there to serve a purpose, rather than an end in their own right. There was little feeling of Herman having a vision of Lisa forgiving him at the end and more a sense of the doom that overcomes Herman in the original book (Pushkin has him confined to a mental institution).

This was a powerful and intensely dramatic account of this dramatic opera. The performances from all the singers were knitted together into a single, strong ensemble. There were powerful individual performances, but above all there was the sense of a brilliant ensemble drama. The chorus were on very strong form and their dramatic contribution, combined with the members of the ensemble taking smaller dramatic roles, gave the piece its grounding. Principals were all impressive, but it was Carl Tanner's tireless and intense account of Herman's mental decline which was the stand-out performance.

Stephen Barlow was a firm, but sympathetic hand in the pit. He drew finely passionate playing from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. It their first engagement at Grange Park and I do hope that we get to hear them again. Barlow clearly has a feeling for this music and I do hope that his appointment as artistic director of Buxton won't mean that we will be deprived of his welcome presence at Grange Park.

Musically and dramatically, and intense and satisfying evening.

See our Festival pages:
Buxton Festival 2012
Opera Holland Park 2012
Grange Park Opera 2012

City of London Festival 2012

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