Showing posts with label The Queen of Spades. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Queen of Spades. Show all posts

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Tchaikovsky, spades and stalkers...

I had a chat with director David Alden about The Queen of Spades at ENO for The Independent (opening night was yesterday). He revealed that Tchaikovsky was no stranger himself to the sort of stalking that Lisa experiences from Hermann...

Few operas can boast a libretto based on a literary masterpiece that is also a psychological thriller. Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, after Alexander Pushkin’s short story, is the exception – and its gripping tale, focusing on a crazed anti-hero, presents a peach of a challenge for any opera company. English National Opera is about to stage its first production of the work in some 20 years with the American director David Alden at its helm. After his enduring success for ENO with Britten’s Peter Grimes, expectations run high.

The opera’s protagonist, Hermann, believes that if he can discover the secret of the “three cards” it will transform his life. He courts the unfortunate Lisa to gain access to her grandmother, an elderly Countess who guards the crucial gambling formula; tragedy ensues as his obsession spirals out of control.

“It’s not easy to stage,” Alden confirms. “It’s a very big piece, it’s quite a monstrous, gigantic panorama, and to keep refocusing it requires a difficult balance between its elements.”

Despite its scale and depth, The Queen of Spades is often overshadowed by Tchaikovsky’s operatic masterpiece, Eugene Onegin, also based on Pushkin, which preceded it by a decade. No less compelling, though, are the driven, haunted qualities of his music for Hermann and Lisa and the care and delight with which he created Mozartian pastiche to evoke the Countess’s memories of the court of Catherine the Great.

The score’s special intensity, Alden points out, may have been turbo-charged by a frightening situation that would have led Tchaikovsky to identify with the confused and increasingly desperate Lisa. Some years earlier, the composer had married, most ill-advisedly, a young woman named Antonina Milyukova who had pursued him by letter. He was gay; she was mentally unstable; disaster ensued. “He had got her out of his life, but she returned and started to make trouble for him,” Alden says. “She flipped over something petty and started threatening to expose him. He fled to Italy in order to write this piece.”

Hermann is in love, at a distance, with Lisa; he pursues her like a stalker, uses her blatantly to access the Countess, and finally drives her to suicide. His obsession transfers to the old Countess and her secret of the three cards. “It’s very Freudian,” Alden suggests. “There’s a triangle of him and the two women, and it turns out the real erotic zinger of the opera is between him and the Countess: his horror of her, his desire for her and the cards.” The setting of St Petersburg becomes virtually a character in its own right, “an aristocratic milieu with decadence and corruption only just under the surface”.

It sounds all too contemporary – but the psychological element remains timeless and universal. “It is very non-literal,” Alden says, of his new production. “It’s a weird, beautiful, dreamy thing.”

The Queen of Spades, English National Opera, from 6 June. Box office: 020 7845 9300

Saturday, June 30, 2012

An operatic top ten...

What makes a really good opera production? I saw one the other day. It was Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades at the bijou Grange Park, an hour or so down the M3 in the Hampshire woods and fields. World-class quality in a place about the same size, seating-wise, as the Wigmore Hall; an absolute powerhouse of a Herman from the American tenor Carl Tanner and a Lisa to match from the radiant French soprano Anne Sophie Duprels. The roller-coaster score, in the hands of conductor Stephen Barlow - who knows precisely how to pace and shape the drama - swept us all along, Pushkin incarnate in music. This is an opera I've seen a number of times, yet often under slight duress of the "I really prefer Eugene Onegin" type. But this time, I fell for it wholesale and stayed under the spell throughout.

That's thanks, in no small part, to the direction of Antony McDonald. A former co-director and co-designer with Richard Jones, McDonald has become a Grange Park stalwart, and his insights into this work leave me eager to sample more from him. The production does everything that a truly excellent opera production should. It takes a problematic work and convinces you that it's a masterpiece; it takes a problematic tale and makes it almost too real; and it stays with you for days afterwards, teasing out the deeper currents of the story and pointing up the connections that undoubtedly are there, but that could easily be forgotten, neglected or lost.

Here's my Top Ten of what makes a really good opera production - illustrated by this one.

1. It pulls everything together. It makes sense; it's rounded and satisfyingly deep.

2. The majority of operas are familiar to the majority of opera-goers (sad, perhaps, but true). A good production makes you feel you're seeing it for the first time, in the best possible way.

3. Psychology is acute; action matches script, plus some. Prince Yeletsky's aria - beautifully sung by the young Dutch baritone Quirijn de Lang - is delivered to a Lisa who is slipping away from her unfortunate fiance's grasp by the minute. And he - attending the fancy-dress ball - is clad in a Pierrot ruff that makes him seem pitiable, even though the rest of the time he's an arrogant, entitled, sod-off aristo - and doesn't neglect to collect his winnings from the dead Herman's pile at the conclusion.

4. It's alive to semi-visible dramatic truths and draws them out, without thumping everyone over the head. For instance, Herman is totally bonkers. He's known by his friends to be obsessive; but we soon see that he's also a fantasist who has lost touch with reality. If he brandished his revolver at the Countess (a superb Anne Marie Owens), it wasn't noticeable. Instead, she starts to succumb early in that devastating scene to clear symptoms of a heart attack. Herman is so bound up in himself that he doesn't notice. "Do you even have a heart?" he demands, failing to observe that that heart is busy killing her. When he states, later, that he brandished his gun at her and she keeled over, this is his own grandiose fantasy - it's not what actually happened, and that tells us more about him than this moment would have were it the truth. Later, we notice that the final gambling scene takes place without him knowing that his one-time pretext for undertaking it - winning money so he can "deserve" Lisa - is defunct, because Lisa has shot herself and is lying dead at the side of the stage where we can see her but he can't. He never thinks to ask where she is or what will happen to her.

5. The society in which the action takes place is all-important and enhances the action even when it is not the original. McDonald has updated the action to just-pre-Revolution Russia. As the Empress appears (in the auditorium) and the chorus pay her homage, red leaflets flutter down from above, and we don't need to pick one up to know what it's all about. The aristocrats - principally the Countess and Yeletsky - are of another era, stuck in the past; contrast the Countess's crinoline ballgown with Lisa's schoolmarmish outfit. And they behave with considerable vileness towards their underlings; it's clear why they would be hated and rejected, but they are rounded enough for us not to hate them altogether. This is a portrait of a society that has gone to pot and will soon implode: and with that goes the obsession with gambling, the drunkenness, the venality...

6. ...therefore it tells us a lot about our own time too.

7. It draws out darker psychological suggestions in the story, but lets us figure out the rest. Herman has the key to the Countess's room because it's a short cut to Lisa's room and her bed. He, though, is keener to wrest the secret of the Three Cards from the Countess, who long ago gave up her virginity for the sake of that secret. He unveils a giant nude painting of the Countess in her youth, when she was known as The Venus of Moscow. There's some correlation within Herman of the Countess and Lisa, and of the Three Cards and something sexual - and we don't learn exactly what it might be, but it's there, and it nudges our perception towards some deep-seated trigger for his madness.

8. The design (also by McDonald) and lighting (Paul Keogan) mesh together and match the music and the concept. And this is a concept production, but it's so good that you don't realise it at the time.

9. Attention to detail is magnificent. That matters more than ever at Grange Park, because the audience is so close to the stage that everyone can see everything. Tomsky's narrative in act I (sung by the excellent Roman Ialcic) is a case in point: he brings his storytelling to life by casting himself and one of his several pals in its roles, and becomes quite carried away when proferring an illustrative kiss. The pal's astonished exchange of looks with the other pal is priceless.

10. None of this would work were the performers not up to it. The casting is superb. Set-piece moments - like Polina and Lisa's duet (brava to the fulsome Polina of Sara Fulgoni) - are able to shine, with stagecrafted images that match their emotional content.