Featuring dramatic scenes, a sophisticated scenery stage and a cast capable of imparting a profound sense of amor fati and the sublime, the Royal Opera House’s performance of Queen of Spades is one not to be missed.
The Queen of Spades, Tchaikovsky’s magnum opus, is a tale of one man’s (Gherman) epic self-destruction as he pursues a self-fulfilling prophecy that is based on superstition and fairytale alone.
It is not easy to digest. It is a dark, troubling and spiritual tale of man’s hubris and downfall.
Stefan Herheim’s interpretation places the composer as the narrator in this drama, trying to make reference to Tchaikovsky’s own personal dramas and conflicts. The duality of character is embodied in Prince Yeletsky, and, whilst a clever concept, at times the character switch is confusing and convoluted.
Vladimir Stoyanov’s portrayal as Prince Yeletsky, however, was quite delightful, with his mellifluous baritone aria in Act 2, Ya Vas Lyublyu¸ being the highlight of the performance.
The protagonist, Gherman, was enacted by Aleksandrs Antonenko. With his deep bass, at times Antonenko manages to convey a depth of feeling and soul and this was more noticeable in the second half of the opera.
The object of his affection, Liza, was sung by Eva-Maria Westbroek. Westbroek gave a reliable performance, if a little lacklustre. Musically speaking, she was on form, however, there was scant depth of emotion that you would expect from one of the main characters.
Mention must go to the fantastic John Lundgren, in the role of Tomsky. Lundgren’s performance of Tomsky is striking as it is a visual and musical antidote to the heaviness of the opera. His performance of Once in Versailles was flawless. The song is essential to the opera as it provides the audience with the history of the Countess and introduces the “tri karti”, or three cards leitmotif.
Similarly, Renata Skarelyte’s whimsical performance as Masha, maid to Liza, injects a dose of comedy into what is otherwise an unapologetically profound tragedy.
The grand dame of the show is Dame Felicity Palmer, the Countess, who at 75 years old put on a magnificent show. Her solo, Je crains de lui parler la nuit, was sung with heartfelt emotion and pitch-perfect pianissimi. Not a hair or note was out of place.
As ever, conductor Antonio Pappano’s control of the score was fantastic. Leading the musicians, Pappano maintains a wonderful movement to the opera and ensures that all the crescendos and diminuendos that are essential ingredients of this opera are performed with passion.
Mention must go to the stage design by Philipp Fürhofer. The main stage is a simple wooden-floored living room in a grand home. Manipulated with magnificent effects, such as the chandelier transforming into a thurible, or the open windows that flash lightening and imitate downpour when pathetic fallacy is demanded, or the giant mirror turned on us the audience (perhaps alluding to the Tchaikovsky/Yeletsky play within a play concept), Furhofer ensures there is never a dull moment, visually speaking.
This opera is complex and perplexing: it follows one man’s journey through the travails of love, desire and debilitating obsession. The Royal Opera House’s interpretation of The Queen of Spades is a fantastic introduction to this opera for the uninitiated and a wonderful homage to Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece.