In the programme notes for Opera Holland Park’s The Queen of Spades, Robert Thicknesse writes that Ivan Vsevolozhsky, who commissioned the libretto, demanded century-old big posh frocks. Vsevolozhsky will have been looking down with approval on Cordelia Chisholm’s beautifully crafted confection of evening dress and military uniforms – set in Tchaikovsky’s own era – none more so than the all-black-and-gold tableau for the masked ball scene.
Rodula Gaitanou’s staging is straightforward, stylish and inventive from the off. In the overture, a tableau is built of the triangle between Herman, Lisa and the Countess – as whom Rosalind Plowright gets one of those entrances that makes you sit up and take notice. Sporting a giant grey wig, her upper body wraith-like, her lower body wrapped in voluminous black folds, nearly staggering on the thump of uneven walking sticks, her appearance infuses the entire proceedings with the spirit of gothic melodrama which is to follow. The single set is disarmingly simple but versatile: the smaller a pair of proscenium arches can open to reveal a bedroom or a gambling table; a colonnade on each side may or may not gain extra gothicness from billowing curtains (and the inevitable cries of the Holland Park peacocks); a subtle lighting shift and the presence or absence of a piano switch the action from indoors to outdoors. There’s tremendous attention to movement detail: everything that is lost by the simplicity of the set is more than recovered by stagecraft. Acting performances are creditable throughout.
The musical performances, however, are uneven and don’t match up to the uniform directorial excellence. Peter Robinson and the City of London Sinfonia certainly weren’t lacking in verve or energy in bringing us Tchaikovsky's high calibre romanticism, and there was hardly anything to complain about in the way of obvious errors. But the overwhelming robustness came at the expense of a certain lack of contrast, most especially notable in the Mozart pastiche of the masked ball scene, which demands a level of grace and elegance.
Each character gets relatively few standout arias in which to state their vocal credentials. Top honours went to Richard Burkhard as Tomsky, who brought the action to life in Act I with his “Once in Versailles” with its famous refrain of “Tri karty” as he unwittingly sows the seeds of Herman’s dementia by telling the tale of the three cards. In Act III's drinking song “If pretty girls could fly like birds”, Burkhard once again showed the vocal and stage presence to grab the audience and carry us along with him.
As Herman, Peter Wedd was unable to do the same, lacking the vocal presence to stamp his authority on proceedings or the timbre to make us revel in the music’s romanticism. Too often, he was submerged below the orchestra at critical times and his entrance aria “I don’t even know her name” failed to establish him as a romantic hero. Wedd’s best moment came in the climactic Act II scene with the Countess, and he gave an effective portrayal of a man degenerating into obsessive insanity. But for The Queen of Spades to be High Romantic rather than merely Gothic, you have to believe that Lisa might fall in love with him, and I didn’t.
The biggest showstopping aria in the opera is Prince Yeletsky's love paean “Ya vas lyublyu": Grant Doyle did a decent job without really melting hearts.
The part of Lisa gives limited scope for a soprano to show off her wares; Natalya Romaniw made the most of what there is, showing us warmth of timbre and urgency in the voice and engagement in the various duets. As the Countess, Rosalind Plowright held her own vocally and turned in a bravura acting performance. Amongst a strong supporting cast, Laura Woods impressed as Polina.
Act III brought us a compelling staging of the closing scene at the card tables. Every year, Opera Holland Park continue to surprise me with their ability to stage interesting productions in a theatrical space that I can’t imagine is anything other than inhospitable for a director. This Queen of Spades is quite superbly staged and despite my reservations musically, it’s still worth seeing.
Find Opera now