Say what you like about Tchaikovsky, but the man knew how to write a knockout aria for low voice. In The Queen of Spades, Prince Yeletsky’s “Ya vas lyublyu” is a heart-melting, no-holds-barred paean of love, and yesterday afternoon Vladimir Stoyanov provided the Covent Garden audience with four minutes of baritone bliss.

Vladimir Stoyanov (Yeletsky / Tchaikovsky) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Vladimir Stoyanov (Yeletsky / Tchaikovsky)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

But why, one might ask, is Yeletsky there in the first place? “Ya vas lyublyu” is the only passage of note he gets to sing, and the character doesn’t appear at all in the Pushkin story on which the opera is based. Director Stefan Herheim’s answer is that Yeletsky is a projection of Tchaikovsky’s inner self; the production’s dramaturg Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach describes him as “an ideal character too good to be true” with whom “Tchaikovsky tries to put himself on a par”. This is the cue for Yeletsky to be displayed as the incarnation of Tchaikovsky himself, on stage for almost the whole opera, conducting and directing the characters he has created. Herheim mixes the events from the opera's story with episodes and thoughts from the composer’s own life – or to be more precise, since there are many conflicting versions of what happened, a particular view of the story: Tchaikovsky as a man tormented by his homosexuality, dying of cholera after intentionally drinking a glass of contaminated water.

Eva-Maria Westbroek (Liza) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Eva-Maria Westbroek (Liza)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

For those who have done their reading, there are myriad references to events from the composer’s life and letters. It’s all terribly clever and erudite, it’s carefully thought through and it’s executed with excellence and some humour, particularly by Stoyanov, who pulls off with aplomb the theatrical marathon into which his walk-on singing part has been turned. But it wasn’t to my taste. It seems staggeringly obvious to me that any work of art is an interaction between the creator and the created, and three hours was an awfully long time to be continually reminded of this. The ubiquitous presence of Tchaikovsky – kibitzing in every intimate scene, incarnated into the clothing and make-up of every man in the chorus – soon became an annoying distraction: it lessened my empathy for the man rather than heightening my sensibility to him. Tchaikovsky was desperately attracted to tenor Nikolai Figner, who sung Herman at the première: Herheim turns that fact into a sordid paid-for encounter between Tchaikovsky and this production’s Herman, Aleksandrs Antonenko, during the opera’s overture. It’s a dramatically striking start, but at odds with the opera’s structure of a breezy, cheerful beginning which steadily turns sour and gothic as Herman’s obsession grips.

Aleksandrs Antonenko (Herman) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Aleksandrs Antonenko (Herman)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Musical performances were uneven. Stoyanov’s “Ya vas lyublyu” wasn’t the only highlight: John Lundgren’s Tomsky thrilled us with a stirring account of “Once in Versailles”, the narration in which he tells Herman (and the audience) the story of the Countess and the three cards, our introduction to the “tri karti” motif that will dominate the opera. As the Countess, Dame Felicity Palmer sang “Je crains de lui parler la nuit” quite beautifully with perfectly weighted phrasing and immaculate pianissimi, perfectly in character as the lady coming to the end of her years who dreams of her younger self. Anna Goryachova was an attractively-voiced Polina.

Dame Felicity Palmer (Countess) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Dame Felicity Palmer (Countess)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

But neither of our two principals were on form. The power of Antonenko’s voice is never in doubt, but this was a day where his voice went hard and shouty when pushed, as well as straying from pitch. You could hear the bronzed timbre in quieter passages, but the sound often became unpleasant. Eva-Maria Westbroek’s voice was more securely on pitch, and her commitment to her character was as strong as it always is, but her voice also suffered from a tendency to go hard on the big notes. That’s partly down to Antonio Pappano’s reading of the score: the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House sounded as forceful and muscular as they did in the recent Ring Cycle: Tchaikovsky demands more nuance, not least when he releases his inner Mozart in the Act 2 divertissement.

The Royal Opera Chorus, however, was on fine form, and some great entertainment (complete with singalong, at least for the Russians in the audience) was provided for the entry of Catherine the Great just before the interval. Herheim’s production certainly avoids the “same-old” tag: I hope the musical performances settle down as the run proceeds.

Vladimir Stoyanov (Yeletsky / Tchaikovsky) and chorus © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Vladimir Stoyanov (Yeletsky / Tchaikovsky) and chorus
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore
***11