fri 14/06/2024

The Queen of Spades, Opera North | reviews, news & interviews

The Queen of Spades, Opera North

The Queen of Spades, Opera North

Tchaikovsky's spooky late opera sounds terrific but lacks danger

'Three, seven, ace': Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (Herman) tries his luck with the three-card trickBill Cooper

This new production, Opera North’s first, sounds fantastic – Tchaikovsky’s lurid colours are brilliantly painted, and the compact dimensions of the Grand Theatre mean that the big orchestral tuttis have a devastating impact. Richard Farnes’s conducting is faultless – this music really swoons, screams and seduces. And despite the occasionally overpowering volume, Farnes never lets his orchestral playing drown out the singers.

The piece is given in an excellent, witty English translation – sung with such clarity that the surtitles feel unnecessary. Tchaikovsky adapted and expanded Pushkin's short story as his source, constructing a richly detailed three-act work revolving around the military engineer Herman’s quest for a diabolical secret with which he can always win at cards. And in an opera all about gambling, taking risks and seizing chances, it’s a shame that some elements of Neil Bartlett’s historically apt staging fall a little flat – you leave craving a little more gaudiness, edginess and Expressionist sleaze. Perhaps it’s the fault of Kandis Cook’s elegant, spare set design. It looks a little too austere and monochrome, only coming into its own when things become more intimate, as when Herman confronts the Countess in her bedroom.

Dame Josephine Barstow as the Countess and Jefrey Lloyd-Roberts as HermanThe busier scenes work beautifully – the opera’s opening, complete with immaculately drilled childrens’ chorus, is flawless. Goose pimples are also raised as the chorus announce the Empress of Russia’s arrival in the second act, while the funeral procession which opens Act III is visually stunning. There are so many good things – most notably the claustrophobic final 20 minutes which at last do justice to Tchaikovsky’s dark musical and dramatic imagination, as Herman tries his luck on the card table. As the doomed Herman, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts sounds marvellous but isn’t always dramatically convincing. There’s an appealing pit-bull-like truculence about his persona which has you rooting for him, but he seems ill at ease, shuffling nervously. Orla Boylan as Lisa seems similarly uncomfortable, despite a similarly ravishing voice. The love scenes tick the requisite boxes, but don’t always take wing.

It’s the supporting roles which steal the evening, William Dazely’s cuckolded Prince Yeletsky a far more winning stage presence than Lloyd-Roberts, matched by Jonathan Summers’s engaging Tomsky. Best of all is Dame Josephine Barstow’s turn as the countess (pictured right, with Lloyd-Roberts). She’s still effortlessly charismatic, her voice largely intact as she enters her eighth decade. Even when she’s tucked away at the side of Act II’s crowded ballroom scene, you can’t help staring at her. And to see her near the end of the same act minus wig and ball gown is a chilling moment. The voice dies down to a whisper, and the audience is silent. In places it’s a thrilling evening’s entertainment - marvel at Tchaikovsky’s glorious music and the high-class contributions from orchestra and chorus. But this piece needs to feel more dangerous and desperate than it does here.

  • The Queen of Spades at The Grand Theatre, Leeds (25 & 28 Oct), then on tour to Nottingham (4 Nov), Newcastle (11 Nov), Salford (18 Nov) and London (22 & 24 Nov)

Watch the trailer for Opera North's The Queen of Spades

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