sat 13/07/2024

The Queen of Spades, Grange Park Opera | reviews, news & interviews

The Queen of Spades, Grange Park Opera

The Queen of Spades, Grange Park Opera

Tchaikovsky masterpiece revived in a production that listens to the music

Tchaikovsky's Summer Garden democratized with toy soldiersRobert Workman

For my money, The Queen of Spades is one of the great nineteenth-century operas, a masterpiece of dramma per musica. There will always be pure spirits who cry “vulgar” at late Tchaikovsky. But the charge is absurd. Anyone with ears can hear the brilliance and refinement of this music, and anyone with feelings can sense Tchaikovsky’s love of his characters, all of them: the frail, the mad, the villainous, the beautiful and the damned. What more can you ask?

It remains, though, essentially a genre piece with supernatural attachments, not very responsive to directorial manipulation. Antony McDonald’s production for Grange Park (revived by Peter Relton) updates it from 1790 (when it’s set) to 1890 (when it was composed), which creates a minor problem for the arrival of Catherine the Great at the masked ball. But otherwise he gives it its head, with mostly stunning results.

OK, the Summer Garden and the ball itself are democratised (the ball into a carnival), but with colourful, inventive costumes (by McDonald himself and Hiroko Matsuo) that easily override the cultural solecisms. The children – girls as well as boys – are excellent, cleverly directed, singing good Russian. The crowd choruses, a slightly artificial element in the work’s design, are discreetly touched in with dance (but we lose the pastoral play at the ball, a musical if not dramatic loss).

The production is at its most memorable when it zooms in on the beautiful and damnedThe production is at its most memorable, though, when it zooms in on the beautiful and damned: Lisa’s nocturnal visit from Herman, Herman in the old Countess’s bedroom, and above all the wonderful scene in the barracks with the Countess’s funeral kontakion still echoing in his mind. These moments, subtly lit by Paul Keogan, tell me that McDonald has looked at the score and projected the music on to the stage.

The sinister economy of Tchaikovsky’s prelude to the bedroom scene – muted violas, pizzicato double basses, soft violins and cellos divisi – is perfectly matched by a single chair in a pool of light mid-stage shrouded in gloom. Bringing in the coffin to the sublimated 1812 music that Tchaikovsky matched to the demise of the imperial old lady (and perhaps the Empire itself) makes perfect sense. Such images need a minimum of visual support, but with strong focus. McDonald clearly understands these things.

The performance itself, admittedly, is not without its problems. Mainly they relate to Carl Tanner’s Herman, well enough sung but immobilised as a character by his stately physique. Are we allowed – after the Rosenkavalier hoo-ha – to comment on a singer’s appearance? I think the theatre requires it. Herman, in Pushkin and Tchaikovsky, is a nervy, edgy individual, tormented, insomniac, who probably picks at his food and only drinks water. He might have played Cassius in Julius Caesar. He is (though Pushkin doesn’t quite say so) thin and driven. These things, for all his musical virtues, Tanner will never be.

His inertia affects the others. Giselle Allen’s Lisa (pictured right) is at her best when Herman is absent, especially in the canal scene (minus canal in this case), where she is superb. With him a certain languour creeps in, though her switches of mood as he first does then doesn’t show his affection for her by the canal are skilfully handled. She also sings very prettily with Carolyn Dobbin’s Polina in their scene two duet – all three verses, though, which may be one too many.

Of the rest, Anne-Marie Owens’s Countess, though healthy-looking for an old lady about to die of shock, is a strong portrait, stylishly sung, and there’s a nicely ironic Tomsky in Gocha Abuladze, though it’s a pity the director allows the rowdy gamblers to drown the exquisite orchestration of his suggestive little Act 3 song. Stephen Gadd’s Yeletsky makes the most of a studiously dull role with one studiously dull aria, and there’s good support from Timothy Dawkins (Surin) and Anthony Flaum (Tchekalinsky), among several others.

Gianluca Marciano conducts idiomatically and tidily, with few mishaps, in a score that by no means plays itself. With minor reservations, this is generally a good evening for an opera that has not always been well served on the stage, however brilliant it may look on the page.

Anyone with feelings can sense Tchaikovsky’s love of his characters, all of them


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters