Oper Stuttgart’s new production of The Queen of Spades (Pique-Dame) pushes a directorial tendency to update opera to a modern setting to an extreme. My heart sank when the curtain opened during the quiet and elegant prelude to reveal a stage with a towering facade of a rundown building. It could be any working class neighborhood of an European town. A young man in jeans appeared in stealth and climbed onto the second floor using a hidden ladder. He spied on a young woman at a window only to see her being embraced by another man. A group of women, young and old, appeared from the building in the cold morning; they are soon replaced by the street crowd. While a group of men sang about Herman and his obsession with Lisa, they treated him with physical violence. The whole atmosphere of the street was rife with violence and sex.

The building façade rotated to reveal the other side of the building, a courtyard. Anna Viebrock's revolving set made for efficient scene changes. A large rectangular box with frosted glass windows would be wheeled in and out. An old woman (the Countess) would make her entrance from this “moving boudoir” and Herman, dead at the end of the opera, would depart the scene in this box. At some point, this box fits in the opening of the courtyard as a gate, a very clever device. The entire opera took place in this confined environment. Herman consummated his love with Lisa in the courtyard. The Countess died not of fright, but on top of Herman as they made love. Lisa’s suicide took place with her jumping off from the top of the building. The “Imperial Ball” was staged as a street festival with the crowd in homemade paper costume. As Herman played his “three cards,” he would repay his buddies for beating him up earlier by hitting them one by one. 

Although weary of the rampant sex and violence, hallmark of many modern European opera productions, there was enough internal consistency in this production, and by intermission I accepted the Pique Dame of sweaty grit and claustrophobic misery. The second half of the opera unfolded in a thrilling manner with a swelling musical prelude foretelling the tragedy’s conclusion. Conductor Sylvain Cambreling took a brisk tempo to add urgency to the score, but he never sacrificed the dramatic excitement and tender beauty in Tchaikovsky’s music. The strings followed the conductor’s varying tempi and dynamics to build a solid foundation to the music, with woodwinds and brass adding color and gravitas and the percussion relished the most dramatic moments.  

The soloists, many of them ensemble members, were solid and at times exciting. Erin Caves started out a little shaky as Herman, but once he warmed up, his clarion tenor rang free and clear in high notes to bring highlight his desire. He acted well, brooding and lustful, negotiating complicated choreography whilst singing. Lisa was characterized here as an naive but sexualized waif. Soprano Rebecca von Lipinski’s sweet and pure voice had enough edge to express her longing and bewilderment as she was caught in the world of brutal and selfish men. Tall and statuesque, she was dramatically convincing. Helene Schneiderman was a standout Countess, singing with a strong and colorful mezzo and acting well as an aging woman of the street playing her last trick. Instead of the usual malice, this Countess was kind to Herman as she led him to his “bus” as he lay dying.

Two long-term Japanese members of the ensemble contributed their well-honed craft. Shigeo Ishino sang Yeletsky's famous aria with rich sonorous voice. He was the only one in the opera to dress formally, indicating his status as an outsider, trying to take a young woman of the neighborhood for his pleasure. Yuko Kakuta sang Masha as well as Chloé in Act 2 Intermezzo, and her vivid stage presence and clear voice made a strong impression. Among the men, Vladislav Sulimsky as Tomsky dominated with his powerful voice and dynamic acting. Stine Maria Fischer's Polina boasted a seductive low voice that was a good fit as Lisa’s more experienced friend.

The question lingers. Does uprooting an opera from its historic setting (Catherine the Great at the end of the festival scene appeared in lingerie as an ultimate femme fatale) add our understanding of the music drama? While this production stuck to its own narrative, it still seemed to include too much sex and violence for its own sake. Most importantly, it failed to highlight Herman’s isolation and alienation from the rest of the society; here, he was just another thug looking to get rich quick.