Hit and miss Queen of Spades

10 Jun

The last new production of the ENO’s season was The Queen of Spades. It was time the company did this again – the last was David Pountney’s in 1983 and that hasn’t been seen since the early 1990s. I saw David Alden’s production at its second performance on 9th June.

I don’t think I’ve been that lucky with the performances of the opera that I’ve seen. I missed Graham Vick’s production at Glyndebourne and Richard Jones’s for the Welsh – by common consent the best of the bunch in my opera going lifetime. At best, I’ve admired the opera but I’ve never been carried away by it. Frequently, I’ve been bored by its length, or irritated by a silly production. It’s a long opera, difficult to pace and it’s very hard to find any of the characters sympathetic or interesting. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this performance – though Edward Gardner and David Alden seemed to be a promising combination – and the cast didn’t look that inspiring.

I wasn’t converted. Alden’s tropes look tired to someone who’s lived with them, on and off, for the last 35 years or so: neon lights, a clock, piles of chairs, a false stage: we’ve seen all of this before and, frankly, I wasn’t sure what they added here. I haven’t seen him use cuddly animal costumes before and didn’t find that they added insight to the Ball scene. It looked like a group of random ideas and, for me, didn’t gel into anything convincing. There were some memorable images – the cast flinging cards about at the end – but I wasn’t engrossed or horrified or even particularly interested.

Alden is, of course, very good at getting strong acting performances from his cast and I did find myself watching them and listening to the words more than in many other performances. A pleasant translation by Neil Bartlett and Martin Fitzpatrick was used and I heard more words than in any other production I can remember. It sounded as though it was grateful to sing.
I’m not sure how much credit he deserves for Felicity Palmer’s performance: she’s been singing the role for more than 20 years. Her voice seems ageless – it’s as full and ripe as I recall it from her Kabanicha at Glyndebourne in 1988 – and her singing and acting of this gift of a role were pitch perfect. The words came across strongly, the aristocracy, the regret and the memories in that wonderful scene were as well done as you could hope and she brought a vulnerability and fear to the role that struck me as spot on.  It’s always a joy to see one of my very favourite singers.

Peter Hoare as Hermann was a late replacement for Peter Bronder. I admired the clarity of his singing and his diction and thought that he conveyed Hermann’s obsession nicely. Ideally, you look for a larger voice and maybe for a bit more vocal colour. I didn’t feel that he kept the interest up in the final scene. This was a Loge or a Basilio being stretched to his limits: perhaps not a bad idea, but a bit more power would have helped.

I’m a fan of Giselle Allen and this performance brought out her virtues – her honest, open portrayals and her committed singing without avoiding the feeling that the voice is a bit small for the house and, again, maybe a bit more colour might not come amiss. I didn’t feel much power or attraction between her and Mr Hoare.

In the other roles, Gregory Dahl made a strong, clear Tomsky; Nicholas Pallesen didn’t strike me as having the sheer beauty or richness of tone that Yeletsky needs – the Act II aria just wasn’t strong or committed enough and got little applause. Catherine Young was made to play Pauline as a high class tart but sang nicely. Colin Judson as Chekalinsky and Wyn Pencarraeg as Surin were very good indeed: clear, individual performances.

Edward Gardner conducted his last production as musical director. It was, of course, excellent. I heard more of the details in this score than I usually do and enjoyed his sheer control of the piece. The orchestra played fabulously well and he enabled singers to sing really softly. It was subtle, well paced and, ultimately, missed the sheer power and horror of the piece. He’s been a galvanising influence at ENO and the excellence of the musical performances here have been outstanding features of the last few years.  He’ll be missed.

So it wasn’t a bad performance and there was quite a lot to enjoy but I stayed disengaged throughout, never grabbed or horrified as, I think, Tchaikovsky wanted; I left feeling, “so what?” I probably just don’t really get on with the piece.

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