“What if there is no secret?
And all this is but the vain delirium of my sick spirit?”

Giselle Allen (Lisa), Felicity Palmer (The Countess) and Nicholas Palleson (Yeletsky) © Donald Cooper
Giselle Allen (Lisa), Felicity Palmer (The Countess) and Nicholas Palleson (Yeletsky)
© Donald Cooper
Herman’s lines as he steals into the Countess’ bedroom give David Alden his trump card in his ENO staging of The Queen of Spades. It’s all a dream, allowing Alden to stage Tchaikovsky’s opera as the delirious ramblings of a man imprisoned in his own mind. Hallucinatory Herman lies on his asylum bed. Hands on the clock never budge. How much of what happens is real? Pushkin’s supernatural tale of obsession (Pikovaya dama ) becomes a tired assemblage of Alden tropes, but is stylishly delivered.

Alden appears to transport the drama from Imperial Russia to the 1960s – Gregory Dahl’s lounge lizard Tomsky is a dead ringer for Le Président in Wim Wenders’ Stella Artois Cidre adverts and Pauline’s friends are clad in flower power dresses. However, Herman and Lisa appear from an earlier era and the frock-coated footman wears shades. But hey, it’s all a dream, so it doesn’t have to make sense, right? Narrative is disjointed and dislocated. It’s a cop out.

Gideon Davey’s designs – a precarious pile of chairs, fading décor, sword-bearing angels – look bargain basement. Much of the action is scaled down to a window taking up about 20% of the stage picture; a portal into Herman’s mind perhaps, but one which deliberately avoids any scenic splendour. The ball in Scene 3 becomes a fetishist ‘plush party’ with many of the chorus dressed in furry animal costumes. The atmosphere of the gambling club in the final scene is intimidatory, decks of cards flicked into the air nonchalantly as the vampish Pauline (Catherine Young) is subjected to ritual abuse. Herman shoots himself atop the heap of chairs.

Giselle Allen (Lisa) and Chorus © Donald Cooper
Giselle Allen (Lisa) and Chorus
© Donald Cooper

Alden draws some strongly dramatic performances from his singers, though their vocal qualities are mixed. Peter Hoare made an heroic attempt at Herman, his tormented character larger than life. However, the role requires a tenor with a good deal more heft than Hoare can offer. Giselle Allen also seemed over-parted by the role of Lisa and there was zero spark between the two leads. It could be argued that Herman uses Lisa to pursue his obsession with the Countess’ secret of the ‘three cards’, but at some point, you have to believe Lisa falls in love with him.

Peter Hoare (Hermann) and Felicity Palmer (The Countess) © Donald Cooper
Peter Hoare (Hermann) and Felicity Palmer (The Countess)
© Donald Cooper
Towering over the whole cast was Dame Felicity Palmer’s Countess. Her mere presence was enough to electrify the Coliseum and her haughty demeanour and powerful voice immediately established her character. The long scene in her bedroom was riveting, mesmerising the auditorium in her delivery of the aria "Je crains de lui parler la nuit" from Grétry's opera Richard Coeur de Lion that Tchaikovsky inserted into his score. The chilling confrontation with Herman, that results in the Countess literally frightened to death without having revealed the winning formula, was gripping.

A pair of Amercian baritones stole the other vocal honours. Gregory Dahl delivered Tomsky’s account of the legend of the ‘three cards’ with urgency, while Nicholas Palleson impressed as Prince Yeletsky, a ‘bit part’ but one which contains the score’s outstanding aria, where he expresses his love for Lisa. Palleson’s eloquence and long arching phrases were a joy to hear.

This production is Edward Gardner’s last hurrah before he leaves the post of Music Director and the enthusiastic cheers he garnered at the curtain call were well deserved. Gardner has transformed the ENO band into one of London’s finest orchestras, immediately apparent from the dark, passionate reading of the prelude. Weighty strings, plangent woodwinds and fateful stabs from the brass plunged us into Tchaikovsky’s turbulent musical world. Gardner must also be loath to say farewell to such an extraordinary chorus that, night after night, packs a terrific punch with its sound, fully committed to whatever the director’s demands. Even if Alden’s muddled clichés failed to convince all the time, Gardner steered us through a thrilling musical account of Tchaikovsky’s terrific opera.