Review: The Queen of Spades
Tchaikovsky is the star of his own opera, whether he wants to be or not.
This production of the Tchaikovsky brothers’ 1890 opera by Stefan Herheim (and his all-male team) places the composer at the heart of the performance. The Royal Opera House’s new production makes full use of their vast stage and world-class musicianship whilst reframing the opera. A trip to the opera in Covent Garden is always a spectacle and this production does not disappoint with its monochrome chorus and folding mirrored set.
This production is as far from Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author as a production could be. Herheim focuses completely on the personal context in which Tchaikovsky wrote The Queen of Spades. The opera opens with an explanation of Tchaikovsky’s difficult marriage, which he had entered into in order 'to redeem his soul from the moral sufferings' that had plagued him- as he was gay. Three years after the premiere of The Queen of Spades, Tchaikovsky was dead. He died after drinking a glass of water infected with cholera, and this production plays on the idea that this was a deliberate act.
The inclusion of Tchaikovsky in his own opera makes for unusual staging. As the overture plays, Tchaikovsky is fellating what turns out to be the anti-hero, Gherman, whom he proceeds to pay for the privilege. As Tchaikovsky drinks the fated cholera-ridden water, the opera interrupts him, saving him. Throughout the opera, Tchaikovsky composes, conducts and interacts with his characters – even enchanting some of them. Eventually, he steps in and inhabits one of his characters, Prince Yeletsky, making far more of the character than is usual.
Uniforms and uniformity play a large part in this production. Tchaikovsky’s initial suicide is interrupted and recreated by a chorus full of Tchaikovskys. Within their groups, the monochrome court, the female servants and the children’s chorus are all dressed the same, giving the world of the opera an eerie and surreal quality. The set reforms with huge mirrors into a variety of configurations, confusing the reality and scale of the world throughout.
The lighting design is a real highlight. The Royal Opera House’s stage feels intimate throughout, with Tchaikovsky and his characters often isolated even when surrounded by the huge cast and intricate set. As the focus shifts from Tchaikovsky’s opera to Tchaikovsky’s death, the cold lighting makes clearer the, sometimes confusing, transitions. Bernd Purkrabek’s design is especially poignant during the threatening of the Countess by the ghostly servants’ chorus and Gherman.
Singers and orchestra together provide an incredible wall of sound. Under the baton of Antonio Pappano, the orchestra flies. The sheer power of Aleksandrs Antonenko fits this production’s Gherman perfectly, reflecting both the desire and increasing danger of this antagonist. Felicity Palmer, however, steals the audience completely. Her Countess is vindictive and poised, making her eventual death more of an act she deigns to perform than a defeat.
Herheim’s production is a spectacle. It may not be the clearest telling of Tchaikovsky’s opera, but it does not intend to be. Nor, however, does the production lessen the misogyny in the libretto. The female characters are homogenised, their composer flees from them and the production seems comfortable for women’s actions to be explained purely through their frigidity.
However, it is certainly a beautiful and curious spectacle.