OPERA NEWS - The Queen of Spades
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The Queen of Spades

Opernhaus Zürich

In Review Zurich Queen of Spades hdl 714
Mulligan, Soffel, Monogarova and Antonenko in The Queen of Spades in Zurich
© Monika Rittershaus 2014

In adapting Pushkin's novella The Queen of Spades for the opera stage,Tchaikovsky was drawn to the subject by the central figure of Gherman, in whom he could see so much of himself — the eternal outsider whose obsessive behavior and inability to fit in with society could lead only to disaster. Robert Carsen's new production of the opera in Zurich focuses completely on its protagonist. As the curtain rises, during the orchestral prelude, we see Gherman lying lifeless on the ground. All that follows is a flashback in which everything is seen through Gherman's consciousness. It was Carsen's bad luck that Andreas Homoki's recent Zurich production of Fidelio had applied this same approach and, in doing so successfully, had unwittingly laid down a challenge to the newcomer.

Carsen's vision entailed making significant cuts. Out went the opening choruses, the nannies and the children, the mock changing-of-the-guard, the open air and sunlight, the moments of innocent pleasure that the composer has painted with inimitable grace and mastery. Nevertheless, Carsen's concept worked magnificently in Act I. The unrelenting darkness of the opera and the obsessive, almost hysterical outpourings of its tormented hero made an enormous impact. By the end of the act, one was a willing captive, totally in thrall to the producer's vision. But then the problems began. How to follow up such intensity? Carsen simply gave more of the same, resolutely keeping the curtain down for the grand Mozartean prelude to Act II (if ever a prelude demanded a visual counterpart, this is it) and excising the complete Baroque "play within a play." Tchaikovsky, however, had addressed this problem by giving us a masked ball and a tiny pastoral masque — diffusing the tension and thereby preparing the ground for the contrasting horrors of the following scene in the Countess's bedroom; even there, the composer has the Countess wistfully singing an eighteenth-century aria by Grétry just moments before her death. In writing this opera, Tchaikovsky acknowledged his enormous debt to Bizet's Carmen,its contrasts of light and shade — with a doomed, increasingly desperate hero, but also featuring festive dances and celebratory set-pieces.

Aleksandrs Antonenko, as Gherman, was superb. His mood switches, from near madness to delicate avowals of love, were convincingly portrayed and were matched by singing that effortlessly expressed power, tenderness and despair. Tatiana Monogarova (Lisa) has a fine voice and acted well, but she failed to get across the extremity of emotion that is at the heart of this opera. Doris Soffel offered a strange and stilted Countess, one whose violent death failed to evoke either pity or terror.

Gherman's male acquaintances were played as a group of grown-up boisterous boys, which is possibly why their actual singing was uniformly loud and lacking in subtlety. While this suited the Act I ballad of Tomsky (Alexey Markov), it was inadequate for the same character's delicate Act III "I wish I were a bird" fantasy. Similarly, the otherwise excellent Brian Mulligan (Yeletsky) sang his tender aria to Lisa (Tchaikovsky at his lyrical best) in such a way as to bring to mind Queen Victoria's complaint about her Prime Minister Gladstone: "He speaks to me as if I were a public meeting." A welcome contrast to all this over-the-top manliness was provided by the delicate, sympathetic Polina of Anna Goryachova. The always impressive Philharmonia Zürich was conducted with uninhibited passion by Jiří Bělohlávek, who produced great washes of emotion, almost becoming an extra character in the drama — the anguished voice of Tchaikovsky himself. This was a tremendously gripping evening, magnificent if misconceived. spacer


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