Queen of WNO

Queen of Spades

Welsh National Opera

Reviewed by: William Turner

Reviewed: 17 October, 2000
Venue: Apollo Theatre, Oxford

If Alfred Hitchcock had ever ventured into the world of opera he would have surely been lured by The Queen of Spades, the haunting tale of obsession that leads to the tragic deaths of the three principal characters. In Welsh National Opera’s new production, produced by Richard Jones and designed by John Macfarlane, its psychological exposition haunts the imagination well after the performance has ended.

Although the psychological threads are multiple, it is fortunate that they are not intertwined to produce a complex puzzle. The principle theme involves the main character, Herman’s increasing and eventually fatal obsession with the secret of three cards, which he hopes will bring him riches. Equally intriguing are themes such as the Countessa’s Sunset Boulevard-like obsession with ageing. In this production it was this that first confronted the audience – a full-stage painting of her young, beautiful face, accompanied by warm sonorous tones, that gave way to a frightening, disturbed and aged image – with music to match. This transformation was complete while we were still in the overture! This production is uncompromising in its placing equal importance on dramatic, visual and musical aspects.

The performances by the Welsh National cast were excellent both in their power and in their totally convincing manner. Vitali Taraschenko, had the unenviable task, as Herman, of persuading the already affianced Liza, played beautifully by Susan Chilcott, to fall for his charms – physically he was not looking the part and, visually, he was less attractive than Gary Magee’s Yeletsky; and he’s not given many words with which to seduce her. The focus though is not on their unconvincing relationship, which is not fully explored fully in the opera, but in Herman’s grandmother, the Countess, played very convincingly by Susan Gorton.

Despite being left with an overall picture of an excellent production, it is certain scenes that linger in a particularly vivid way – the wonderfully staged marionette show in the second act adapts nicely to Tchaikovsky’s balletic idioms; the Countess propped up in her bath, reminiscing about her Paris days while starring at a large picture of herself as a young beauty and the final scene with a huge gambling table placed at a bizarre angle to the stage.

The psychological aspects go deeper though. We don’t know why Tchaikovsky chose to have both the heroine and hero commit suicide when Pushkin’s original story had her marry a civil servant and he go mad. Much of Tchaikovsky’s unhappy mental state is perhaps submerged in this work.

Somewhat neglected in the repertoire, WNO’s production powerfully demonstrates the dramatic potential within this work; musically, it is interesting to contrast the familiar Tchaikovsky of the Pathetique symphony and The Nutcracker as well as different, even surprising styles. Welsh National Opera have once again shown the heights of excellence and imagination of which they are capable. This production should not be missed.

Classical Source recommends The Queen of Spades (Pique Dame) in Valery Gergiev’s Kirov Opera recording – PHILIPS 438 141-2 (3 CDs)

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