The Queen of Spades is filled with members of St Petersburg high society with not enough to do. The various “officers” have little obvious connection to soldiering, so drink and gamble their time away, the “superfluous men” of 19th-century Russian social critique. Lovely young Lisa and her women friends fill their days with folk songs and dances, and are admonished for performing à la russe (like Russian peasants). A strange old Countess with the secret to a lucrative three-card trick recalls her young days in Versailles, singing for Madame Pompadour. And Hermann, our officer hero, loves Lisa but worries his officer buddies with his moody distraction. Oh, but if he can just learn that three-card sequence, he can get rich and get the girl. Yoked together in this common fate, the Countess, Lisa and Hermann will die. A silent mysterious figure, Death himself, stalks this staging in the second half, gently helping them find their destined end. In Pushkin’s story, Tchaikovsky’s opera, and this new production by Jere Erkillä at Savonlinna, this is a death-haunted piece.

Misha Didyk (Hermann) © Valtteri Hirvonen
Misha Didyk (Hermann)
© Valtteri Hirvonen

But there is plenty of pageantry to enjoy along the way in this lavish staging. In the opening outdoor scene, in the court masked ball, and in the gambling den at the end, the wide Olavinlinna castle stage swirls with characters, colours and more detail than the eye can take in at first. The movement of all these crowds in an awkward space was very natural and, therefore, skilfully prepared. The costumes are lavish too, mostly of the composer’s era rather than that of Catherine the Great. (This means the “masked ball” of the libretto has no masks – not an idea to be repeated in Don Giovanni or Verdi’s Ballo). 

The full ballet is included, a slightly overextended tableau of shepherds and shepherdesses, a rococo pastorale with some of the composer’s feebler sub-Mozart musical ideas. (Did this same composer really write three best-loved ballet scores?) The idea of having po-faced court flunkies solemnly holding up the cardboard clouds was a droll touch however. At the ball the courtiers are also offered fireworks, a chance to project some bursts of colour onto the huge back walls of the castle. William Iles' lighting effects are often pretty special, as when the bursting forth of the love of Hermann and Lisa is celebrated with a panorama of stars and swirling beams of light filling the whole space of stage, back wall and side walls. This was more stadium rock than stuffy opera house, lighting as ‘metaphor made real’ as the lovers were – literally – star-struck, blinded by love.

Elena Guseva (Lisa) © Valtteri Hirvonen
Elena Guseva (Lisa)
© Valtteri Hirvonen

Does all this splendid spectacle swamp the macabre three-hander at its core? Not quite, for the crucial scenes between Lisa and Hermann, and Hermann and the Countess, are skilfully directed, restoring the focus on the consequences of an inescapable compulsion. These roles are taken by singers who have the voice, looks and stagecraft to evoke sympathy for this sinister troika. The Countess of Elena Zaremba, a small but central role, is ideal. She is no aged crone, but a mature beauty who might well have once been known in Paris as the “Muscovite Venus”, and whose burnished mezzo has aristocratic authority when dealing with her tiresome retinue. Elena Guseva’s Liza also looked as if two officers (at least) would vie for her favours, and her often thrilling voice had the occasional edge to suggest that she is as irrationally obsessed with gloomy Hermann as he is with the secret of the cards. 

Misha Didyk made the most of a role that does not really change, for Hermann begins as an archetypal doomed Romantic hero and wanders through the opera pursuing that destiny. He too looks good in the role, and has the right type of tenor, baritonal in timbre but with an easy passaggio to a top whose strenuousness was quite in keeping with his histrionically demanding part. Hermann features in all seven scenes of the score, so it was not surprising if he tired just a little in his last moments when, like Lisa before him, he kills himself. There were fine comprimarii, led by Kiril Manilov as Tomsky and Melis Jaatinen as Polina, but vocal honours were snatched by Konstantin Shushakov’s peerless account of Yeletsky’s romance “Ya vas lyublyu”. The production features two casts in most  of the lead roles, so opened with a different Hermann, Lisa, Tomsky and Polina. Though appearing on this second night, this seemed in no sense a “B” cast. The excellent forces of Savonlinna Opera, choral and instrumental, were very well directed by Alexander Vedernikov.

<i>The Queen of Spades</i> © Soila Puurtinen
The Queen of Spades
© Soila Puurtinen

The production has an intriguing final twist. As the music approaches the closing bars, Hermann, or his shade, arises to walk off with Lisa, united at last, as wraith and revenant. It might have surprised Pushkin, but maybe it was written in the cards.

 

Roy's press trip was funded by Savonlinna Opera

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