With Richard Farnes producing dynamic playing from the orchestra and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts projecting his trademark combination of menace and vulnerability as Herman, Opera North’s production of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades inevitably has power and drama, but both, surprisingly, only sporadically. As someone who (I admit) is not familiar with the work, I don’t find it easy to identify why the emotional impact on me was so modest.
I fear for my own judgement when the likes of Richard Farnes and Richard Mantle are powerful advocates for the opera, for to me the major problem lies in the work itself. There is a very simple basic story-line. Herman is possessed by two linked obsessions, his love for Lisa and his desire to learn the secret of the cards possessed by the Countess, her grandmother. He pursues both with such disregard for conventional morality that all three die.
Around this is gathered enough extraneous matter to stretch the evening to more than three and a quarter hours (two intervals, admittedly). The interpolation of a French song by Gretry, a wistful reminder of the Countess’ faded youth wispily sung by Josephine Barstow, is dramatically effective, but I doubt if the same can be said for the three songs delivered “in concert” by Lisa and her friend, Pauline, or the Mozart pastiche at the masked ball, charmingly delivered by Miranda Bevin, Alexandra Sherman and Jonathan Summers. It must be said that a long evening passes very pleasantly, but without the emotional involvement I hoped for.
Opera North has a fine record of importing directors from “straight” theatre, but Neil Bartlett proves surprisingly conservative. Some of the stylisation hints at Nicholas Hytner’s take on Handel, but sometimes the excellent chorus is just clumsily handled and occasionally seems left to its own devices. Several parts are under-characterised (even the admirable William Dazeley is hardly memorable as Lisa’s spurned fiancé), though Jonathan Summers strikes a blow for humanity as Count Tomsky: his amiably louche personality and warm baritone create a real character and, on first night, more than compensated for repeating half a verse of his drinking song!
What tension there is is created by Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts and Dame Josephine Barstow. He, as always, combines the danger and victimhood of the outsider perfectly, his singing similarly poised between agony and beauty. She is convincingly authoritative, but most compelling when confronted with her own mortality. Vocally and physically she still covers a huge emotional range. Orla Boylan’s stately Lisa lacks any sense of unpredictability, of either fun or passion, though she sings her final scene beautifully. Sparks, sadly, don’t fly between Herman and Lisa.
The set by Kandis Cook is functional, but drab, but her in-period costumes are fine, despite a few dodgy haircuts, and Chris Davey’s lighting provides a few dramatic moments. But it was a strange evening: so many good things, but I was neither shaken nor stirred.