“Life is but a game” is a famous proverb in Russia, which derives from Tchaikovsky’s penultimate opera. It is a poignant message that subtly runs in the great Russian author Aleksandr Pushkin’s intricate storyline of love and gambling. That’s until the moment the tormented protagonist, Hermann puts his fate on betting on the wrong card. What should have been an ace was the queen of spades.
Director David Alden has churned and baked some stunning productions in the last thirty years at the ENO (English National Opera), though other operas, such as last year’s Otello, didn’t receive the same praise. During the ENO’s Powerhouse years – from 1984 onwards – Alden staged controversial and shocking operas including Tchaikovsky’s “Mazeppa” that made an impact on its audience as it was dubbed “the Chainsaw Mazeppa”. Sadly no footage of the production was preserved. His 2014 production of Britten’s “Peter Grimes” was also a fine example of the director’s visionary ability, which was one the few productions that elevated the ENO’s creative status despite their financial and political squabbles including concerns regarding the prices of their seats.
Now Alden directs yet another controversial outing through Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades” but to the displeasure of some of its audience who raved about his unforgettable “Mazeppa.” However, new timers of Alden’s work might view it as a curious pastiche of 19th century Russian psychology. Stage designer Gideon Davey misleads the audience, at first, making them believe the next three hours will be a cold, grey and conventional stage but this shifts to a creamy beige backdrop with subtle disco lights when Hermann’s secret lover, Lisa (Giselle Allen) breaks into gentle song with her seductively dressed friend, Pauline (Catherine Young). Later on, large fluffy animal heads come out to play and dance to Masha’s (Katie Bird) kinky pastorale. This change of scenery might be a good thing but Alden’s odd, and old, prop trickeries of chairs stacked on top of each other and unlimited cards flying in the air almost seem done to death – the audience get the picture, no need to repeat it. The face of a timeless clock, which pops up here and there, also adds to the theatrical muddle.
Yet, no doubt, the opera survives with careful rendering of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic and romantic score through a firm cast and Ed Gardener’s spectacular conducting of the ENO’s dedicated orchestra. (Gardener bids farewell as ENO’s music director after the production to take up a new post at the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra). As for the singers, they demonstrate their clear understanding of the opera as Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest had written the libretto. Neil Bartlett and Martin Pickard’s translate the poetic magic of Pushkin and make it palatable for novices of the author’s work.
Peter Hoare plays the hardest role as the lead character, Hermann, having to sing consistently in all seven scenes and depict the overwhelming influence of addiction and love; betting his life away to cards and jeopardising the feelings of fragile Lisa, which is no mean feat. Whilst Hoare isn’t vocally seamless here, he is a great act on stage and evokes the necessary imagery to portray Pushkin’s troubled outsider, distressed by critical questions of fate whose destiny lies in the hands of the queen of spades.
Giselle Allen goes all out singing as Lisa – a weak woman easily swayed by love who spontaneously cuts her throat with a glass bottle. In “I am worn out by grief” the audience cling onto Lisa’s sorrow through Allen’s energy which is felt the most in this scene. Gregory Dahl and Nicolas Pallesen also give worthy interpretations as crass Count Tomsky and sympathetic Prince Yeletsky. Pallesen’s voice in “I love you beyond measure”, as a plea to Lisa, is so precious it wins a round of applause. And Katie Bird as Lisa’s maid makes her debut at the ENO and adds an extra touch of talent whilst leading a saucy dance in Act 1.
The ENO Chorus, including the children singers, are also on top of their game (yet again), who perform with meaning and passion and continue to give a rock-solid show. And Dame Felicity Palmer as the countess and mysterious Queen of Spades is legendary. This production marks her fortieth anniversary at the ENO since her debut. Although dressed as a ghostly figure, to depict her quasi-villainous character, her version of Laurette’s aria is affecting and a gracious event in itself. The entire ENO stands still with only a few wispy instrumental notes to accompany her.
This opera is a dark one (literally), and although there are question marks over Alden’s direction here (compared to when it got it right), there is a lot to learn about the golden age of Russian literature and Tchaikovsky’s daring opera. Those captivated by Russian literature should feel compelled to see it.