Yet the shrewd Modest turned Pushkins compact story into a large-scale romantic melodrama Pyotrs imagination was gripped and within six months, despite working on other projects, Tchaikovsky had completed a second Pushkin-inspired masterpiece. The opera was slow to catch on, especially in Britain. Glyndebourne produced it in 1994; this new realisation, directed by Francesca Zambello, is, remarkably, only its second-ever outing at Covent Garden the one from the early 1950s, it seems, never really captured the publics imagination.
One can perhaps see why The Queen of Spades needs a quartet of four strong, sharply characterised principals; a large, spirited supporting cast of chorus and dancers; a lavish production to do justice to the ornate, aristocratic 18th-century setting; and a conductor with a full appreciation of Tchaikovskys orchestral palette, one who can reveal the composers wide stylistic range. This new Royal Opera presentation has them all.
The main protagonist is Gherman, an army officer, obsessed with Liza, ward of the old Countess; hes more obsessed still with winning a fortune at the gaming table, for which he must master the elusive three-card trick via a double-or-nothing process. Its a long, intense and arduous role here brilliantly delivered by the full-throated and charismatic Russian tenor Vladimir Galouzine, whose performance is a tour de force. He has more than ample support from Finnish soprano Karita Mattila whose portrayal of Liza is equally electrifying, a rendition brimming with passion, intensity and vocal bravura. Equally engaging is the demeanour and silvery utterances of baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as her fiancé Prince Yeletsky; then theres the attraction of the splendid Josephine Barstow as the ancient and vindictive Countess.
Theres excellent teamwork from the remainder of the cast; the large complement of extras distils the utmost colour and vibrancy from the choral writing and choreography.
The eye is drawn to Zambellos handsome staging minute-by-minute to Peter J Davisons rococo sets, Mark McCulloughs exquisite, almost symbolist, lighting (the green of the card tables baize which permeates the final scene is a masterstroke), Nicky Gillibrands lavish costumes and Vivienne Newports extensively embellished dance and movement routines.
Bernard Haitink caps it all by presiding over a Royal Opera House Orchestra on wonderful form: all the operas many shades are captured in the pit, Haitinks detailing of string and wind textures especially beguiling. His pacing is brisk but flexible, which serves the works dramatic thrust and lyrical pathos. [Haitinks decision to take just one interval, after Act 2/Scene 1, is perfectly placed and attenuates the cumulative tragedy Music Editor.]
Come the denouement, the card Gherman is convinced will be an ace turns out to be the queen of spades. This Royal Opera spectacle might be The Queen of Spades but its unquestionably an ace as well. Tremendous!
- Further performances on May 15, 18, 21, 24 & 28 at 7.00
- Box Office: 020 7304 4000
- Book online: www.royaloperahouse.org