Sunday 25 June 2023

Visually seductive and strikingly arresting: The Queen of Spades at The Grange Festival is a real study in obsession

Tchaikovsky: The Queen of Spades - Josephine Barstow, Eduard Martynyuk - The Grange Festival (Photo: Craig Fuller)
Tchaikovsky: The Queen of Spades - Josephine Barstow, Eduard Martynyuk
The Grange Festival (Photo: Craig Fuller)
Tchaikovsky: The Queen of Spades; Anush Hovhannisyan, Eduard Martynyuk, Andrei Kymach, Ilya Kutyukhin, Josephine Barstow, director: Paul Curran, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, conductor: Paul Daniel; The Grange Festival
Reviewed Friday 23 June 2023

A study in obsessions, a series of strong performances bring director Paul Curran's intriguing vision to life, in Gary McCann's profoundly beautiful, yet a-historical setting

The Grange Festival's final new production of the season was Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades, an opera which does not get as much exposure as it deserves. Paul Curran directed, with designs by Gary McCann and lighting by Johanna Town. Paul Daniel conducted the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra with the Grange Festival Chorus and the Twyford Young Chorus. Eduard Martynyuk was Herman with Anush Hovhannisyan as Liza, plus Andrei Kymach as Tomsky, Ilya Kutyukhin as Yeletsky, Alexey Dolgov as Chekalinsky, Edwin Kaye as Surin, and Josephine Barstow as the Countess, plus Christopher Gillett, Armand Rabot, Arlene Belli, Lucy Schaufer and Isabel Maria Araujo.

Based on a Pushkin story, Modest Tchaikovsky's libretto for the opera significantly diverts from Pushkin's original. The result is a tale of obsession that is a long way from romantic drama, in a way Herman is a more extreme version of the anti-hero that Tchaikovsky created with Eugene Onegin. The original setting is the late 18th century, though productions are often moved to around the time of the work's composition (late 19th century). Curran and McCann set it in a highly attractive yet a-historical era. McCann's sets and costumes looked gorgeous, but the setting seemed to be an era which could not exist, Imperial Russia in the 1930s. The sets used the same basic architectural elements - glass and carved stone cornices - to create a series of striking settings, whilst costumes and moeurs were 1930s with nary a Soviet commissar in sight. But from the opening scene, we were seduced, and the opera successfully established its own setting.

The masked ball was a riotous affair, descending into licentiousness towards the end, and Catherine the Great was Lucy Schaufer's governess in costume and masked, played as a great joke. Only in Act Three did McCann's architectural elements widen out, with Herman's grim barrack room and then a bleak open stage for Liza's encounter with Herman.

Tchaikovsky: The Queen of Spades - Eduard Martynyuk, Anush Hovhannisyan - The Grange Festival (Photo: Craig Fuller)
Tchaikovsky: The Queen of Spades - Eduard Martynyuk, Anush Hovhannisyan - The Grange Festival (Photo: Craig Fuller)

Herman is a towering role, singing in all but one of the opera's seven scenes. The first Herman, Nicolay Figner was a lyric tenor, albeit one who sang roles like Arnold in Rossini's Guillaume Tell, and Figner's valuable late recordings include a surprisingly lyrical excerpt from The Queen of Spades. (The first Liza was Figner's Italian-born wife, who survived long enough to record a long interview about the opera).

I have to confess that I was unsure of Eduard Martynyuk at first. This Herman was a long way from a romantic hero, intense, stiff and obsessed, his looks reflecting that from the start of the opera, Herman's friends comment on how ill he looks. Martynyuk's tone was a bit too intense, too unvarying in the first half (the interval was after the Countess' death). But as Herman's obsession strengthened, Martynyuk drew you in. 

The final scene in Act One is the culmination of Herman and Liza's romantic obsessions and both singers conveyed their character's focus on a 'love-object' that is not what it seems. Martynyuk's Herman was focused on the Countess' secret, Liza was only a means. Hovhannisyan's Liza was romantically intoxicated by this Herman's otherness. The result was passion without real connection. Martynyuk brought out Herman's weird compulsion in the scene with Josephine Barstow's Countess and all stiffness disappeared as Martynyuk turned Act Three, Scene One almost into a mad scene. The following scene, with Anush Hovhannisyan's Liza, was perhaps one of the bleakest that I have seen, a masterclass in non-communication between two obsessive individuals. In the final scene, Martynyuk's appearance was made all the more striking by the contrast with the vivid chorus performance earlier in the scene, their lively hi-jinks interrupted by Herman's grim obsession. Martynyuk looked even paler than earlier and more intense, leading to a shattering climax.

Tchaikovsky: The Queen of Spades - Ilya Kutyukhin - The Grange Festival (Photo: Craig Fuller)
Tchaikovsky: The Queen of Spades - Ilya Kutyukhin (Yeletzky) - The Grange Festival (Photo: Craig Fuller)

Anush Hovhannisyan made a similarly intense Liza, strangely obsessed and disconnected from her surroundings. Even in her first scene, this was apparent, though her friends were certainly not a tractable bunch, even passing around a hip flask (vast quantities of stage vodka were consumed during the production, almost as if the entire story was fuelled by alcohol). Hovhannisyan brought out a glorious outpouring of passion at the end of Act One, though this seemed increasingly disconnected from reality as Herman's behaviour became apparent. Then in Act Three, Hovhannisyan was gloriously bleak, alone on an open stage, barely moving. This was a highly sophisticated and powerfully moving performance.

The role of the Countess is relatively small but Josephine Barstow made every note, every gesture count. This Countess was a real tartar, yet in the bedroom scene she wove magic in the litany of her former lovers, and then the Gretry song, handled delicately. You had to forgive some harshness, and perhaps forcing, of tone, but the performance as a whole was towering.

Andrei Kymach as Count Tomsky almost stole the show in Act One with his narration of the tale of the Queen of Spades, a real tour de force, a feature Kymach brought off again in the final scene with his song to entertain his gambler friends, here given a very suggestive slant. In between this was a strongly drawn character, vividly sung. 

Ilya Kutyukhin as Prince Yeletsky got the opera's best-known aria. Kutyukhin sang it with profound beauty and so brought out the Prince's depth of feeling that we found it incomprehensible that Liza would reject him.

Tchaikovsky: The Queen of Spades - Edwin Kaye(Surin), Andrei Kymach (Tomsky), Alexey Dolgov(Chekalinsky) - The Grange Festival (Photo: Craig Fuller)
Tchaikovsky: The Queen of Spades - Edwin Kaye(Surin), Andrei Kymach (Tomsky), Alexey Dolgov(Chekalinsky) - The Grange Festival (Photo: Craig Fuller)

The smaller roles were all vividly drawn. Alexey Dolgov and Edwin Kaye as Chekalinsky and Surin, popping up as a lively double act, the two well differentiated. Arlene Belli made a similarly characterful Polina, blending well with Hovhannisyan in their duet yet having a distinct personality. And Belli ably doubled the role of Milovzor in the Pastorale. Lucy Schaufer made a wonderfully fierce governess whilst evincing a nice sense of humour in her incarnation of Catherine the Great at the ball. Christopher Gillet did sterling service, doubling the bored, cigarette-smoking master of ceremonies and Chaplitsky in the final scene. Armand Rabot, from the chorus, was Narumov, and Isabel Maria Araujo, also from the chorus, doubled the maid Masha and Prilepa, from the Pastorale, in discreet but definitive fashion.

The children's chorus in the first scene was admirably drilled with the young singers entering into the action with a will. The main chorus was on terrific form in the ensemble scenes, and many singers created strong individual characters, and vocally they made a fine uplifting sound. The men were particularly fine, their all-singing, all-dancing account of the final scene prior to Herman's entry was glorious, as was, in a truly different way, their singing of the unaccompanied chant that after Herman's death, a really moving moment.

From the opening notes of the work's prelude, Paul Daniel and the orchestra brought out the music's links to Tchaikovsky's symphonies, and throughout this was a richly symphonic performance, the orchestra providing not just support but an essential complement to the drama.

The Queen of Spades is an opera that seems to attract directorial pensees, David Pountney's production for ENO in the 1980s took place in Herman's mind whilst David Alden's more recent production for the company was more Gothic horror riot. Whilst the recent Royal Opera House production, directed by Stefan Herheim, featured Tchaikovsky himself. Here, it was welcome that within quite a traditional, and visually seductive, framework, Curran drew a strikingly arresting take on the opera.

Never miss out on future posts by following us

The blog is free, but I'd be delighted if you were to show your appreciation by buying me a coffee.

Elsewhere on this blog

  • Adding the countertenor voice to the conversation: Iestyn Morris on recording a disc of romantic Russian song - interview
  • One of the towering masterpieces of the chamber music repertoire: violinist Simon Blendis introduces Enescu's Octet - guest article
  • Stylish performances all round: a winning account of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte at The Grange Festival that engages as well as questions - opera review
  • Rückert lieder: Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake in songs by Robert & Clara Schumann, Schubert, Henze and Mahler - concert review
  • We simply forget that there was anything young artist about the evening: Hansel & Gretel at Opera Holland Park - opera review
  • Colour, text & character: Dresden Music Festival launches its historically informed Ring cycle -with gripping Das Rheingold - opera review
  • A little bit of magic: Asya Fateyeva and Lautten Compagney Berlin at the Dresden Music Festival - concert review
  • Mozart's late masterpiece: La Clemenza di Tito from Chelsea Opera Group with Helena Dix and Kezia Bienek - opera review
  • Verdi's RigolettoOpera Holland Park's opening production for 2023 with Elgan Llyr Thomas as the Duke - opera review
  • Simplicity is one of the hardest things to do: composer Debbie Wiseman on the challenges of writing music and introducing her new disc, Signature interview
  • Ida revealed: John Wilson & the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment take a fresh look at Gilbert & Sullivan's unjustly neglected opera, Princess Ida - opera review
  • Home

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month