Queen of Spades – ROH – 12 May 2001

The Queen of Spades (Pique Dame)

opera in three acts and seven scenes after Pushkin

Gherman – Vladimir Galouzine
Liza – Karita Mattila
Prince Yeletsky – Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Chekalinsky – Robin Leggate
Surin – Jeremy White
Count Tomsky – Nikolai Putilin
Countess – Josephine Barstow

Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden conducted by Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Duncan Hadfield

Reviewed: 12 May, 2001
Venue: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Pushkin’s ironic yet chilling novella, The Queen of Spades, is an exemplar of clarity and conciseness, an almost ideal basis for an opera. Tchaikovsky, having already successfully set scenes from Pushkin’s verse-novel, Eugene Onegin, initially showed little interest in his brother Modest’s suggestion that The Queen of Spades would make another suitable operatic subject.

Yet the shrewd Modest turned Pushkin’s compact story into a large-scale romantic melodrama – Pyotr’s 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 public’s 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 Tchaikovsky’s orchestral palette, one who can reveal the composer’s 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; he’s 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. It’s 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 there’s the attraction of the splendid Josephine Barstow as the ancient and vindictive Countess.

There’s 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 Zambello’s handsome staging minute-by-minute – to Peter J Davison’s rococo sets, Mark McCullough’s exquisite, almost symbolist, lighting (the green of the card table’s baize which permeates the final scene is a masterstroke), Nicky Gillibrand’s lavish costumes and Vivienne Newport’s extensively embellished dance and movement routines.

Bernard Haitink caps it all by presiding over a Royal Opera House Orchestra on wonderful form: all the opera’s many shades are captured in the pit, Haitink’s detailing of string and wind textures especially beguiling. His pacing is brisk but flexible, which serves the work’s dramatic thrust and lyrical pathos. [Haitink’s 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 it’s unquestionably an ace as well. Tremendous!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content