Queen of Spades began life as a sharp little ghost story by Alexander Pushkin, quite different in tone and spirit from the melodramatic adaptation by Modest Tchaikovsky, who wrote the libretto for his composer brother. This striking new production by Opera North looks back to the early 19th century of Pushkin in the elegance of its costumes, whilst retaining the full force of Tchaikovsky’s passionate score. The costumes were mostly monochromatic, with splashes of red, and the little girls of the chorus in big white skirts and black bonnets fluttered ominously about the stage, like the whirl of playing cards in Alice in Wonderland, and suggesting the madness that is to follow.

Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, in the lead role of Herman, brilliantly captured his character’s derangement from the opening scene, when he sits brooding silently, alone on the stage, and his first aria, I don’t even know her name already had a note of hysteria about it. Tchaikovsky’s score makes big demands on his lead singers, and both Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts and Orla Boryan as Lisa rose admirably to the challenge, with powerful singing against a large orchestra, although there were times when it seemed as if they were both pushed vocally to the limit. Orla Boryan has a beautifully sweet soprano, and although there were moments in the first two acts when her performance lacked conviction, her anguished lament in Act Three, as she waits for Herman at the canal, was beautifully moving.

Queen of Spades gave Tchaikovsky the opportunity to write in his trademark big scenes; high society taking the air, a ball, and the gambling den, and Opera North’s augmented chorus were marvellous. The anthem to the Empress that closes the ball was sung with great enthusiasm, and the gamblers seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves, oblivious to the tragedy unfolding around them. There was also some very pleasing singing from the supporting male roles, particularly Jonathan Summers as Tomsky and, above all, William Dazeley as Lisa’s jilted fiancé, Prince Yeletsky. His tender plea to Lisa at the ball, when he begs her to tell him what is troubling her was one of the highlights of the evening; his clear, smooth baritone exuding aristocratic restraint as Yeletsky struggles with his emotions. All the singers ensured that the screen titles were completely unnecessary; in fact at times they were even a distraction as they only highlighted weaknesses in the libretto.

As ever with Tchaikovsky, emotion is everything, and the orchestra of Opera North brought all the necessary force and passion that his music demands. There are moments in Tchaikovsky’s orchestral writing when the listener physically feels the composer’s anguish, and they held nothing back, as they delivered Tchaikovsky’s emotional stomach-punches. Their strings and woodwind were big and rich, grabbing our attention right from the opening notes of the overture, and I particularly enjoyed the insistent, terrifying string motif that opens Herman’s confrontation with the Countess.

The true star of the opera is Queen of Spades herself: the dying Countess is a lonely old woman, living in the glories of her glamorous past, and Dame Josephine Barstow was absolutely magnificent. In her public scenes, clothed in dazzling costumes, she exuded an imperious haughtiness, but alone in her room, in her nightgown, she was touchingly fragile and her great lament for her glory days in France Je crains de lui parler la nuit was a spellbinding masterpiece of pianissimo singing, dying away with such control that it was impossible to tell when she had stopped singing.

The opera ends with Herman’s devastating error, when, having learnt the Countess’s secret to gambling riches, he plays the wrong card, and loses everything. Surprisingly Tchaikovsky doesn’t dwell on this dramatic ending, and the opera zips quickly though Herman’s suicide to a brief funeral scene, and the singing of the Nunc Dimittis which Opera North’s men conveyed with the depth and sonority required for Russian orthodox church music, bringing this excellent production to a solemn close.