The Queen of Spades (ENO, 17 June 2015)
Today I should’ve been at Glyndebourne for Die Entfuhrung but I was schythed down by a merciless cold so I’m finishing up this write-up instead. Luckily, there’s quite a bit of Mozartean influence. But Tchaikovsky himself isn’t a slouch at spinning a tune either.
Hermann: Peter Hoare
Lisa: Giselle Allen
Countess: Felicity Palmer
Prince Yeletsky: Nicholas Pallesen
Count Tomsky: Gregory Dahl
Pauline: Catherine Young
Tchenkalinsky: Colin Judson
Sourin: Wyn Pencarreg
Governess: Valerie Reid
Mascha: Katie Bird
Tchaplitsky: Peter Van Hulle
Narumov: Charles Johnston
Conductor: Edward Gardner | ENO Choir and Orchestra | Co-production with Fondazione Teatro La Fenice di Venezia
Director: David Alden
The Ace of Spades
This production is as cynical as it gets. By contrast, Hoare’s lyric Hermann appears in an unsually favourable light. Alden uses the weirdly cheerful prologue of children at play to establish that reality is frequently intruded upon by Hermann’s hallucinations. You know he’s getting unsettled whenever a rectangle in the back wall opens to show a musically and visually intrusive scene. Interestingly, the Countess and Liza first enter through that same rectangle.
Gardner’s conducting ephasised the contrasts to the point the sound verged on disjointed. It made sense, considering the route taken by the direction. As such, the Mozartness of certain parts (the ball in scene 1 of act II) was way obvious. Good thing, too, as the chorus that starts act II is strongly reminiscent of Idomeneo’s Nettuno s’onori. The masque presented at Yeletsky’s party, cheerfully out of place with the heartbreak of the romantic score, gives Alden the opportunity to get silly. I suppose the choreography centred on tossing stuffed animal heads in the air illustrates that Hermann is beyond upset with Liza’s engagement to Yeletsky. Happy endings where the girl goes for the poor but loving suitor (the masque’s plot) appear to him as utterly ludicrous.
Having not read the short story there is something crucial I never quite got. He unexpectedly learns that the woman he hopelessly loves actually returns his feelings. Why does he then suddenly make a sharp turn and starts getting more interested in The Countess’ secret? My only explaination is he thought that even though Liza loved him they couldn’t possibly marry considering he was poor. He needed a plan to get rich pronto. Or maybe it’s just the curse of many an opera libretto: sense, what sense? Or, you know, he’s gay. The woman you’ve been pining for is throwing herself at you and you’re like so how’s your grandmother, hon?
Liza: Hermann, take the key to my grandmother’s room. From there you can enter mine. I’ve decided to lose my virginity to you tomorrow night.
Hermann: tomorrow? I must get to the Countess’ room tonight!
Liza: tonight? Uh… ok, I guess I could lose my virginity sooner than planned because I really love you, although that’s a really big deal for a girl, especially before the 1960s, you know.
Hermann: yes, I must get the secret tonight!
Who said romance was dead? Still, good job Hoare for never coming off like a heartless dickhead. He brings out the addict’s tragedy in the last scene. Excellent performance.
Considering this opera is named after the mysterious old countess you’d think she has a lot to sing. She doesn’t. She usually lurks around as a thought in Hermann’s feverish mind. The scene where she reminisces about the past is the only one where she has centre stage. She appears a typical old woman: grumpy and lacking patience with the younger generation, who as ever, doesn’t measure up to the good old days. She sings a sentimental tune from her youth. The legend around her secret is most likely just that. Count de St. Germain – or someone like him – probably lent her the money she lost at cards. Or something equally as mundane. But Hermann of course imagines fabulous things were at play. He scares her to death and later on his guilty conscience coupled with his already obsessed mind brings her back as a hallucination where she tells him her supposed secret.
Felicity Palmer does a subtle job with the atmospheric moment when the Countess, now alone, sings a happy/sad version of Grétry’s Je crains de lui parler la nuit. It feels like a window into another world, creepy more by virtue of sounding so old fashioned and coming from an old woman. In spite of her age Palmer isn’t shrill. I like how she keeps it subtle throught to express the Countess’ almost otherwordly nature. There’s also an elegance to her singing that convinces us that she was once a high society beauty who could have made the notoriously elusive Count of St. Germain share a secret with her.
I like this moment a lot in the same way I like cover versions. Taking liberties with an existing piece digs out surprising new meanings when done successfully. Also Tchaikovsky’s playing with different styles is one my favourite things about this opera. We’ve got this, we have the Mozart pastiche, the traditional Russian songs, the Orthodox church music, the whiff of belcanto that runs through most of the 19th century Russian opera, the late Romantic influences. It takes a special talent to makes it all work.
Mezzosopranos – the bass players of the opera world
Mezzos are like blenders: you know you need one but you’re never too sure why.
Almost invariably a rock band includes a bass player but 9 times out of 10 his work is pushed back in the final mix. There are leading mezzo roles in the repertoire. But most are just there to provide the harmony to the soprano’s melody. Otherwise known as the trusty companion/best friend/old nurse/mother/auntie/other wise women. Sometimes – especially if they clean up nicely in a suit – they get drafted to sing the boy roles that tenors (and sometimes countertenors) can’t cope with. Other times they take one for the team/get lucky (depending on inclination) and play the town slut/evil woman. So spoiled for choice! The best kept secret: the mezzo role rarely meets an untimely death. While sopranos and tenors get felled left and right and baritones and basses have to live ever after with their evil deed-stained souls, the worldly mezzo digs her heels in and lives to tell the tale (as a wise old woman).
This production offers a once in a lifetime opportunity for a versatile mezzo to score a 3 in 1: from the cheerful and musically inclined best friend of act I to the lucky in love cheeky shepherd in the act II masque to the party animal of the gambling scene there’s nothing she can’t do. Except it’s the the soprano who gets all the applause. Or in the case of this opera, the tenor.
Young does it all quite valiantly, though I thought her acting as good friend Pauline was rather odd. Or maybe that was the personenregie, which here could be summed up as: no matter what you do, act OTT. The scene with Liza, Pauline and the other girls goes like this: Liza and Pauline sing a song about brooklets in the evening (a lied, eh?). Then Liza asks Pauline to sing one alone. She obliges and sings a proper Russian dirge about being unlucky in love, which she says is Liza’s favourite song. Forshadow city; the tune is later recalled in the countess’ song – oddly, in a happier manner. But after this they all sing the only cheerful Russian tune known to man (and woman)! What a treasure this opera is 😉
There is really nothing in this scene that calls for OTT-ness. It’s girls singing and some undertow but that can be done in an innocent manner. Maybe that’s it, this production doesn’t know innocence. I guess we need to allow for this being in English but the dirge’s specific flavour of Russian wistfulness didn’t come out as strongly as it could. Talking about OTT, whatever one thinks about feeling rotten, you need to raise it up a few notches if you’ve got a Russian character.
In conclusion: it’s a beautiful, sophisticated score, that makes typical Italian or German opera sound provincial. It’s got some wonderful tunes for the winds and all that was served very well by this performance. I wasn’t all that taken by Allen’s tone though I can’t say she didn’t do her job. The singers in the smaller roles were fine enough. I’d have liked less cynicism (!) but the production did make sense after all.
* it appears the quote is apocryphal… 😉