The Royal Swedish Opera – The Queen of Spades

The Queen of Spades – Opera in three acts and seven scenes to a libretto by Modest Tchaikovsky and the composer after the novel by Alexander Pushkin with incorporations from Peter Karabanov, Vasily Zhukovsky and Konstantin Batyushkov [sung in Russian with Swedish surtitles]

Hermann – Maxim Aksenov
Chekalinsky – Niklas Björling Rygert
Surin – Krisjanis Norvelis
Count Tomsky – Marcus Jupither
Prince Yeletsky – Krister St Hill
Countess – Ingrid Tobiasson
Liza – Hillevi Martinpelto
Paulina – Katarina Leoson
Masha – Annica Nilsson
Governess – Agneta Lundgren
Major-Domo – Magnus Kyhle
Chaplitsky – Magnus Kyhle
Narumov – Michael Schmidberger
Chloë – Vivianne Holmberg

Chorus & Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Stockholm
Keri-Lynn Wilson

Dmitri Bertman – Director
Hartmut Schörghofer – Set and costume design
Hans-Åke Sjöquist – Lighting
Edvald Smirnov – Choreography

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 20 March, 2012
Venue: Kungliga Operan, Stockholm

This revival performance of the The Royal Opera Stockholm’s 2009 The Queen of Spades was one of few in the current season. A shame, as it is distinguished by some classy singing and orchestral playing; and particularly by the assumption of the tricky role of Hermann by the young tenor Maxim Aksenov, taking over the role from the production’s original interpreter Aleksandrs Antonenko.

Aksenov has the advantages of youth – dramatically he looks entirely credible as the young impressionable Hermann and youthful lover for Liza and rival for Yeletsky. Not only that, he is an extremely impressive actor managing to appear romantically inclined and yet managing to chart Hermann’s increasingly self-absorbed infatuation with the Countess and her secret of the three winning cards with an alarming and almost uncomfortable directness. This Hermann’s eyes seemed to glint increasingly manically as obsession gripped him. Normally this part is assumed by tenors with more maturity and vocal heft, and so it was a surprise to discover that Aksenov has a powerful and ringing voice with clear trumpety tone and a considerable palette of colour and control of dynamics. Initial worries about his stamina to sustain this arduous role were unfounded. His singing sounded as idiomatically Russian as one could hope for. It was a thrilling performance.

The rest of the cast provided some sterling support for Aksenov. Ingrid Tobiasson proved a charismatic and winning Countess – a role that always brings out the best in seasoned artists and vital in this role. Ostensibly more youthful than is customary, there was strong evidence of this Countess’s equally powerful obsession with the enigmatic Hermann, and a suggestion that in some ways she and Liza were rivals for his attentions. The production does not help her particularly in the great scene following the ball where she was required to sing the Grétry’ aria from a bath-tub in which she finally dies (although the idea of both ladies drowning is a strong one). Vocally she was in fine form: the voice remains rich and projects well, and she caught the character’s wistful reminiscences of past amorous intrigues well, despite being interrupted by some rather unfortunately timed coughing from the audience.

Liza is one of opera’s most unhappy heroines and again a tough call for interpreters. The role is surprisingly dramatic in its writing and yet the character must be youthful, anxious and yet have some sense of fighting against social convention. Hillevi Martinpelto certainly knows how to project Liza’suncertainty and ambivalence. Her voice has taken on darker colours and a more dramatic edge in recent years. The higher stretches of the role do not now find her instrument at its most flexible, though her middle voice retains its bloom. If some of the high passages sounded slightly squally and not entirely secure of intonation they were always voiced to dramatic effect. She was at her best in the duet that closes the first Act and in her suicide scene.

Of the other protagonists Krister St Hill was a generous and warm voiced Yeletsky, dramatically patrician and aloof, and he made the most of his declaration of love. Marcus Jupither was a competent and genial Count Tomsky, although the more sinister side of the character was rather muted. Niklas Björling Rygert turned in a very positive cameo as Chekalinsky. Other minor roles hit their mark as well – not least Agneta Lundgren’s dotty Governess and Annica Nilsson’s rather tempramental Masha. The velvety voiced Katarina Leoson made a stong impression as Pauline and in her role in the ‘Pastorale’. The chorus was on fine fettle.

There was excellent support from the orchestra: Keri-Lynn Wilson’s interpretation was on the fleet side, keeping the drama going and not falling into the fatal trap of over-romanticising the love scenes. The score brims with thematic undercurrents that always registered, and the storm had unexpected ferocity. Some distinguished plaintive woodwind and pliant string playing caught the attention throughout.

The production is very strong visually, with the darkness of the interior scenes particularly atmospheric, although the placing of the interval halfway through the ‘ball scene’ seemed something of a dramatic miscalculation. Other musical oddities also registered – such as the Countess appearing to sing one of Pauline’s stanzas in her initial duet with Liza. However, the dominance of the card gaming-table and the premonitionary hints of Liza’s watery end were strong. Having the men in the gambling den stripping off and flagellating one another before settling down to cards was entirely unnecessary, but other scenes such as both Liza and Hermann intoning the contents of Liza’s final letter were dramatically strong. The ending was suitably enigmatic, with Aksenov’s eerie singing of Hermann’s final phrases from off-stage rounding off his compelling performance in some style.

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