Tuesday 30 June 2015

Queen of Spades at English National Opera

Queen of Spades - English National Opera - photo credit Donald Cooper
Queen of Spades - English National Opera - photo credit Donald Cooper
Tchaikovsky Queen of Spades; Peter Hoare, Giselle Allen, Felicity Palmer, dir: David Alden, cond: Edward Gardner; English National Opera at the London Coliseum
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Jun 6 2015
Star rating: 3.5

Gothic horror riot, with fine individual performances

Felicity Palmer - Queen of Spades - English National Opera - photo credit Donald Cooper
Felicity Palmer - photo credit Donald Cooper
ENO's 'Queen of Spades' was a Gothic horror riot. Directed by David Alden, choreographed by Lorena Randi and with music conducted by Edward Gardner, there was just enough humour to offset the dark and dangerous themes.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote 'Queen of spades' in 1890 in only 44 days. Depressed and exhausted with the public life of a composer in Russia, Tchaikovsky disappeared to Florence to write. He had already planned to work on Alexander Pushkin's1834 story 'Queen of Spades', basing the opera on a libretto written by his brother Modest and theatre manager Ivan Vsevolozhsky. The two brothers collaborated throughout, with Pyotr Ilyich ruthlessly cutting and rewriting Modest's work as he sped through the composition. 'Queen of Spades' had its premiere later that year in St Petersburg, and was an immediate success.

Following 'Eugene Onegin' in 1878, and 'Mazeppa' 1883, this was the third of Pushkin's stories to be set by Tchaikovsky. The story was already popular and gamblers believed in the luck of the 3, 7 and Ace prophesied to be winning cards. In more modern times a Russian TV quiz show uses Herman's aria from Act 3 as its theme tune.

Right from the start of the overture the orchestra made the most of the Romantic score with its bass heavy Russian orchestration and sinuous solo lines. The set design (Gideon Davey and Wolfgang Goebbel) was stark with clever use of shadows and of a window through which we could see the everyday events of the chorus.

Peter Hoare - Queen of Spades - English National Opera - photo credit Donald Cooper
Peter Hoare
photo credit Donald Cooper
Set as a Gothic horror Peter Hoare's Hermann becomes fixated on improving his fortune by forcing the countess, Felicity Palmer, to tell him the mystical secret of winning at cards. He engineers a meeting with the countess by courting her daughter Lisa, Giselle Allen, who falls in love with him. The countess dies of fright when Hermann threatens her, but she returns as a reluctant spirit to give him the winning numbers as long as he promises to marry her daughter. Meanwhile the daughter, who has realised that Hermann was only using her, commits suicide in shame. Herman uses the cards predicted by the countess, winning with the first and second cards. The third card though is not the Ace but is the Queen of Spades. A broken man, Hermann too commits suicide.

Adding to the horror ambience the nature of the chorus was ambivalent from the start. There was something unsettling about the nannies and their children, and later when they were singing about the coming of spring they were more than a little threatening. The theme of flying cards along with coffins appeared throughout the opera, suggesting drowning in cards and the uncontrolled nature of Hermann's addiction. The ball scene and entertainment, Katie Bird, Catherine Young and Gregory Dahl (who was superb as Tomsky - he resisted over singing, instead using very controlled top notes), were more Rocky Horror, with the chorus dressed up as furies dancing the monsters' steps from 'Thriller'. There was an obligatory man dancing in a pink tutu and, in keeping with the idea, in the next scene the countess' maids were male.

Giselle Allen, Felicity Palmer, Nicholas Pallesen - Queen of Spades - English National Opera - photo credit Donald Cooper
Giselle Allen, Felicity Palmer, Nicholas Pallesen
photo credit Donald Cooper
Tchaikovsky's music was lush and gorgeous. Peter Hoare's rich middle and low tones were perfect for the part, his anguished soul echoed by the orchestral storm. The girls were accompanied by lighter woodwind, the Prince, Nicholas Pallesen, by cello and the countess by oboe (with a brass figure for her death). The final unaccompanied Nunc Dimittis was poignantly sung by the male chorus.

Individually the performances were great and impeccably sung, and there was much to enjoy. However there was a lack of chemistry between Hoare and Allen that was not helped by the direction. For example to words along the lines of 'I hold you... I kiss you' they were standing several feet apart and Hoare was hugging his briefcase holding it as a barrier between them. Also Allen's costumes were appallingly unflattering for someone who was supposed to be the daughter of a countess, and I pity the poor girl who, when she wasn't singing, paraded around in a series of smaller and smaller dresses, and finally, after being gang molested, staggered off with her underwear on show.

The translation by Martin Pickard and Neil Bartlett was very clever with its internal rhymes, but sometimes drifted into Gilbert and Sullivan territory.

There is a certain fatalism about this production: David Alden started his collaboration with ENO with Tchaikovsky's 'Mazeppa' some 30 years ago. From the reviews of that production it appears that there was blood all over the walls - and in that respect nothing has changed (Pugsley and Wednesday would have been proud of Lisa's suicide).

It is also the last production with Edward Gardner as musical director. He is leaving to focus on conducting the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. But all is not lost - he will be back in 2016 and until then Mark Wigglesworth will be looking after the orchestra.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

Hermann -  Peter Hoare
Lisa - Giselle Allen
Countess -  Felicity Palmer
Prince Yeletsky -  Nicholas Pallesen
Count Tomsky -  Gregory Dahl
Pauline - Catherine Youn
Tchenkalinsky - Colin Judso
Sourin - Wyn Pencarreg
Governess - Valerie Reid
Mascha -  Katie Bird
Tchaplitsky - Peter Van Hulle
Narumov - Charles Johnston

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