It’s been a long while since I’ve found an opera more enjoyable with my eyes shut than open. But with a director who says things like ‘Opera is not about giving people a good time,’ perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Stefan Herheim’s gamble with Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades tries too hard to be clever, making for a bewildering, boring and generally unenjoyable production.
Instead of Tchaikovsky’s magnificent overture, the curtains rise to ‘Tchaikovsky’ performing fellatio on a prostitute. This rather distasteful opening is just the beginning of the humiliation of the poor composer. Herheim wants us to view The Queen of Spades as the product of Tchaikovsky’s struggle with repressed homosexuality. To this end, the Tchaikovsky figure (played by Vladimir Stoyanov) remains on stage throughout the opera, scribbling on loose sheets of paper and mock-playing on the piano as though he is writing the events of the opera in real time.
The midnight confrontation between Gherman and the Countess? There’s Tchaikovsky, skulking in the corner. At the apparition of the Countess’ ghost? There he is again, playing the piano with unnecessary melodrama. Gherman’s and Liza’s passionate love declaration? There he is too, chivvying the protagonists towards each other like some kind of maiden aunt. It is completely distracting. The emotional intensity of each scene is utterly lost – something Herheim clearly intends, since he has the characters pretending to sing off ‘scripts’ like actors at an audition.
The worst part of it is that this butchering of the opera isn’t even to any point. Unlike what Herheim would have us believe, The Queen of Spades is not the invention of Tchaikovsky’s tormented, gay mind. It was based on Pushkin’s short story of the same name mocking human greed, and trying to reinvent it as the product of Tchaikovsky’s tortured soul just does not make any sense no matter how hard Herheim tries. It’s unclear what each of the characters signify and how this is all supposed to tie into Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality.
To be fair, it isn’t just the direction – this production suffers musically as well. Maybe we can’t blame the singers for being as bewildered as the audience. Stoyanov, who (mystifyingly) plays both Tchaikovsky and Prince Yeletsky, was among the better singers here, with one of the few highlights of the evening being his aria ‘Ja vas lyublyu’. Aleksandrs Antonenko as Gherman is another story altogether. Was he singing, or shouting? At first I thought he was being intentionally discordant for the sake of acting, but I soon realised it wasn’t a conscious decision at all. Eva-Maria Westbroek, starring opposite him as Liza, wavered in her singing and seemed to run out of breath in the longer passages. The one bright spot was Anna Gorvachova, who sang excellently as the side character Paulina (Liza’s friend, here ‘reimagined’ by Herheim as her lesbian lover).
Even Tchaikovsky’s beautiful music failed to charm. The ROH orchestra, conducted by Antonio Pappano, played some of the most confrontational, unsubtle Tchaikovsky I’ve ever heard. Perhaps Pappano was suffering from a Wagner hangover after last year’s Ring Cycle?
The set was, at least, technically excellent, with backlit panels of bookshelves seamlessly changing the stage from bedroom to ballroom. Visually arresting, the set designs came across as slightly histrionic at times, - at one point the large chandelier started swinging across the stage while spewing smoke, like Phantom of the Opera gone wrong.
To prolong the misery, The Queen of Spades is hardly a short and sweet opera. 7 acts long, at the interval I found myself wondering how I would manage to get through the second half. At times it felt like we were just being shouted at – by Antonenko and Westbroek, by Pappano and the orchestra, by Herheim and his harebrained ideas.
Tchaikovsky would have been rolling in his grave. Wait – he was doing quite enough rolling about on stage already, being kicked and jeered at by his out-of-control characters and made a laughingstock for the audience. Far from being a sensitive exploration of Tchaikovsky’s mindset and motives, Herheim’s adaptation is a disrespectful and disappointing bastardisation of an opera once described by Tchaikovsky as ‘my masterpiece’.