Opera North at Barbican Theatre – Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades

The Queen of Spades – Opera in three acts to a libretto by Modest Tchaikovsky & the composer after Pushkin’s novella [sung in Martin Pickard’s English translation]

Herman – Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Chekalinsky – Daniel Norman
Surin – Julian Tovey
Count Tomsky / ‘Pluto’ – Jonathan Summers
Prince Yeletsky – William Dazeley
Lisa – Orla Boylan
Countess – Dame Josephine Barstow
Pauline / ’Daphnis’ – Alexandra Sherman
Lisa’s Governess – Fiona Kimm
Masha – Gillene Herbert
‘Chloe’ – Miranda Bevin
Master of Ceremonies – Paul Rendall
Chaplitsky – David Llewellyn
Narumov – Dean Robinson

Chorus of Opera North
Opera North Children’s Chorus

Orchestra of Opera North
Richard Farnes

Neil Bartlett – Director
Kandis Cook – Set & Costume Designer
Chris Davey – Lighting Designer
Leah Hausman – Movement Director

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 22 November, 2011
Venue: Barbican Theatre, London

It’s a while since Opera North last appeared in the capital, so hats off to the Barbican Centre for providing the company with a new London home. The venue is not ideal – the space was conceived for speech, not music, so there is no resonance, while the pit is too small to accommodate most post-Classical forces (Opera North’s brass and percussion decamped to the sides of the stage) – but it’s better than nothing.

The Queen of Spades (Pikovaya dama) is a slight affair, padded out with drama-neutral interludes and masques, but the narrative compels and the music beguiles. Ostensibly, Pushkin’s supernatural cautionary tale is about greed, as the tortured Herman’s mad pursuit of wealth leads him to behave with reckless abandon and to spurn the woman who loves him. The possibility exists that Tchaikovsky, a man troubled by his homosexuality and scarred by a catastrophic marriage, was drawn to the story for autobiographical reasons; director Neil Bartlett certainly drops one pebble in that pond when the Master of Ceremonies (Paul Rendall, mellifluous of voice and a dead ringer for Michel Serrault in La Cage aux folles) eyeballed his come-hither to Herman.

Despite the dry acoustic and other issues, there was still plenty of musical cheer. The Chorus of Opera North had been strengthened for the occasion and shone like a good deed in a murky world. Minor solo roles were uniformly well taken, not least Alexandra Sherman whose ravishing contralto ensured that Lisa’s salon-singing friend Pauline turned heads, while Richard Farnes conducted the opera with ideal momentum and a meticulous concern for balancing the sound, even though the reverb-free auditorium accentuated every blemish from his players.

Of the principals, only William Dazeley as Prince Yeletsky, Lisa’s betrothed, was entirely comfortable in his role. He cut an aristocratic dash and sang with characterful yearning in his Act Two aria of devotion. The bass-baritone Jonathan Summers communicated plenty of enjoyment as Count Tomsky, Herman’s confidant, although his tone has lost the penetration it had in his halcyon Balstrode days. As for Lisa, Orla Boylan’s voice had the necessary spinto definition but there was no luminescence and her lower notes rang shallow. These reservations paled into insignificance, however, beside the distress of witnessing Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts flounder in the central role of Herman. Technical shortcomings afflicted every aspect of the tenor’s performance; I shall say no more.

The variability of the renditions was reflected in the production, a stylistic patchwork that lacks a distinctive style. Expressionism rears its head from time to time, as do surreal ideas such as indoor rain, but overall Neil Bartlett’s staging lacks coherence. For the most part, though, and to his credit, it is workmanlike. He was helped by some cracking ensemble work under Leah Hausman’s supervision, but hindered by Kandis Cook’s oppressively dull box set. (By a strange paradox, Cook’s vibrant costumes could have been conceived for an altogether more opulent staging.)

Bartlett stages the opera’s pivotal scene with subtle effectiveness. The intrusion by Herman into the bedchamber of the Countess (and grandmother of his intended, Lisa) in an attempt to seize the secret of the cards is an encounter whose fatal outcome tips Herman over the edge. The scene’s creepiness is wonderfully conveyed by Bartlett, who in turn is greatly abetted by Farnes’s pacing and by Dame Josephine Barstow’s extraordinary turn as the old Countess. Barstow sang her Grétry aria, ‘Je crains de lui parler la nuit’ (borrowed by Tchaikovsky from the opera Richard Coeur-de-lion) with esurient flamboyance and then luxuriated in the barely-audible reprise. The scenery may have been raw MDF but that didn’t stop Barstow from chewing it up.

  • Second performance at 7.15 p.m. on 24 November
  • Barbican

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