A very unusual production of Tchaikovsky’s opera ‘The Queen of Spades’ has been staged at the Royal Opera House. With musical direction being given to Antonio Pappano, the creative team mostly came from Germany included director Stefan Herheim (although Oslo-born, Stefan studied in Hamburg), designer Philipp Fürhofer, lighting designer Bernd Purkrabek and the opera’s own dramaturg (as it is a rule in German theatre) Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach. It is important to mention the German directing team behind this new work, as the creators have been evidently bred up by German Regietheater and have been more than usually inventive with music and libretto alike. And it seems it is the core reason of British critics’ harsh negation of the result, as both the public and the journalists in Britain are used to more conservative treatment of operas. However, there are so many little inventions in it that it would have been a shame not to give them proper attention and understand Herheim’s intention behind them.
The director makes it obvious from the start that he wants his Queen of Spades to be about Tchaikovsky and he re-shapes the whole production guided by an idea that the composer spread his grief, his pent-up emotions and his forbidden homosexuality into all its characters. In Hernheim’s view, Gherman and Liza, and the Countess and most obviously Yeletsky (who is played by Vladimir Stoyanov who doubles as Tchaikovsky) are all multi-faceted realizations of the composer who feverishly created the opera to let them all (and himself) on page of his work. Music, in Herheim’s view, became a very straightforward sublimation and expression of emotions that tormented Tchaikovsky, and Hernheim associates the composer’s torments with only one particular and well-known detail in his biography – that he was a homosexual. To stress the fact, the stage appears only after we have seen several sentences explaining us the circumstances of Tchaikovsky’s death and the dubious fact of him dying after drinking a glass with cholera-contaminated water – Herheim cries out for us to know that it was either a voluntary suicide, or the one committed under pressure from the self-proclaimed ‘court of honour’ which wanted him to conceal the affair with his nephew Vladimir Davydov.
It is all fine, but the only problem with Herheim’s directions that it gets obsessed with this idea as much as Tchaikovsky’s might have been obsessed with the shame of his sexuality, and for a modern viewer it all begins to seem funny, rather than revealing new truths or challenging the existing status quo. And it results in – one can’t help noticing the gorilla in the room this time, whatever the famous experiment might say on this point – too much of Tchaikovsky character on stage for us to fully appreciate his own creation. Tchaikovsky, almost like an imaginary Proust in ‘In Search of the Time Lost’, is everywhere in this production – he composes the sung (alive) arias, he, alter-ego like, interferes with actors singing, he assumes the role of Hamlet father’s ghost and sneaks on the most intimate proceedings (like the death of the Countess), and he is brash enough to occasionally ‘conduct’ the Pappano-led orchestra, the children’s and adult choir on stage, and even (he evidently knows everything about everything, this Pyotr) the dancers at the masked ball. I am sure that the modest Russian composer would have shied away from the dubious glory of this amateurish multi-tasking, but Stefan Herheim can’t have enough of him, starting from a very ludicrous beginning where the composer does a blow job to a Peter the First looking servant played by Alexander Antonenko (who sings Gherman). Is this supposed to be funny? Yes, may be, but c’mon! Such decision also makes many normal operatic things problematic, including the required intimacy of duets in which the opera abounds and the general sense of mystery that its plot is supposed to create. I couldn’t hear the wonderful, tender duet in Scene 2 of Act I between Liza (Eva-Maria Westbroek) and Paulina (Anna Goryachova) well enough precisely because of Tchaikovsky messing around the two women. The murder of the Countess committed in a dark room with deep-shadows is romantically tragic enough, without the Poirot-like Tchaikovsky lurking about. Tchaikovsky becomes a hindrance to his own music – isn’t that a paradox?
But this major directorial decision apart, there is a really inventive and beautiful set from designer Philipp Fürhofer that expands and contracts so cleverly and which lighting (Bernd Purkrabek) changes so variedly one almost doesn’t notice that the actual set of high-ceilinged walls with beautiful decorations stays the same. It becomes a small room and a big hall for a masked ball, and an apartment, and it creates the neeed continuity of the proceedings, as indeed, in line with Herheim’s idea, even the material space seems to be just one imaginary room in Tchaikovsky’s house that undergoes various metamorphoses. There is even a portrait of Tchaikovsky’s faithful friend Nadezhda von Meck in it to stress this idea, and only a clever viewer will notice the moment when once the grand portrait of Catherine the Second furtively takes its place. I adored the moment when Liza longingly thinks of Gherman and an enormous chandelier gets lit with blue moonlight from outside – if only Herheim allowed himself to be romantic more often. But he doesn’t, he likes his small little tricks and overloads us with them: here is Liza and Paulina playing a small play-within-a-play, impersonating a shepherd and his naïve lover, only to lead this spectacle into something very vulgar and interrupted by jealous Eletsky (Tchaikovsky?). The same vulgarity of Antonenko playing the trans-Catherine the Second finishes a very interesting decision of making the audience sing (nobody, apart from me and a colleague rose from their seats) by giving out leaflets with a hymn to the Tsarina. I am not a prude and all these things seem curious to me, but I don’t see their necessity for the production. Morever, they ruin its romantic feel completely, with Pushkin’s original combination of tragic love and fatal providence disappeaing from it as utterly redundant.
The singing on the night was of varied quality – interestingly enough, it was Vladimir Stoyanov who doubled as Tchaikovsky and Eletsky that was the star of the evening, with his aria reminding us of Gremin’s ‘To love all ages are obedient’, as indeed ‘Eugene Onegin’ was very much a predecessor of ‘The Queen of Spades’ musically. I thought there could be more of John Lundgren as Tomsky, whom I couldn’t believe seeing again after his Wotan and whose voice was rich and earnest, with elements of playfulness when he switched into the role of Zlatogor. Herheim, it must be mentioned, loves his doubles and seems to derive much from the idea of a human soul schizophrenically split into multiple personalities, and probably should have gone for staging Dostoevsky’s ‘The Double’ or Gogol’s ‘The Nose’. I thought that Eva-Maria Westbroek was adorable as Liza, although her potential for depth and tragism was not nearly as well explored as when she sang Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in spring 2018. Alexander Antonenko as Gherman seemed to fearlessly dive into his arias in a manner very similar to his own character, but the result was not even, and sometimes very much below his usual standard. He could have reduced the neurosity in his vocals and would have sounded much better. Antonio Pappano, it seems, was himself too overwhelmed by the visual component of the opera – and was subdued from our consciences into the accompanying background, together with Tchaikovsky. Even the ‘All our life is a game’ aria sounded somehow unrecognizable that evening. The novelty of Herheim’s interpretation is surely something to write home about, but it remains a question whether it will stay in the recesses of our strongest memories of opera visits. However, it is a voice, and a brave and inventive one, and I surely would not have minded to have a chat with Stefan Herheim to discuss ‘all things Tchaikovsky’. I would have pointed out that in our epoch of in-your-face autobiography this production indulges in it to the point to turn the scales towards critical approach to straightforward connections between life and art. More nuanced, objective and reserved interpretations paying attention to music disjointed from the biography would do good in our age of self-assertion and obsession with intimate life facts of famous personalities.