The Queen of Spades – English National Opera – June 19th 2015

I had expected Tchaikovsky but I had not expected an orgy in animal costume during the intermezzo, which I also got*. Actually in essence I got three hours of Alden madness, to the detriment of Tchaikovsky’s very fine score, which not even some excellent singing or playing could quite overcome.

Faced with a full on bad-regie (as opposed to last week’s Carmen: good regie) assault (the aforementioned orgy, a Ballet de Trocadero moment en travesti, the massive video projections of Felicity Palmer’s head, the endless flicking of playing cards which grew tiresome, the terrible conceit of a back wall aperture opening at various times – usually to show the chorus just standing there and singing – all backed up by some terrible lighting, all of which drew attention to itself in service of a willfully perverse presentation of the story, it was going to be a tough show to say to oneself at the end “well, that was enjoyable!”.

The setting seesawed between two or three eras (four if you count “Je crains de lui parler la nuit”) one of which was noticeably very 1960s. Or at least, 1960s as “the West” would recognise. Did Mary Quant being a kind of glasnost during the Kruschev Thaw? Did girls wear miniskirts in Kruschevean Soviet Russia*? Was this even Kruschevean Soviet Russia? As, the lighting (Wolfgang Goebbel) came across all lava-lampy discotheque-y and we had the words in English (Martin Pickard and Neil Bartlett) and the girls tarted up, even though they were at a boarding school or something, guzzling champagne, singing “one of those happy Russian songs” (in English) but I doubt the narod could afford champagne, queuing as they were for basic staples, so maybe these were offspring of the nomenklatura, but by God, I have spent entirely too much time trying to justify Alden’s horrible idea, so I’ll move on.

One could suggest that the details just described (aperture, FP’s head, playing cards) were all Peter Hoare‘s Hermann’s bad trip. The opening scene suggested 1920s Russia to me, but other reviewers suggest Stalinist times, which makes sense, else Hermann would have been about eighty years old at the time he was having his breakdown onstage). Indeed, the clinical green of the flats suggested it may have been a mental asylum/military hospital. Certainly this Hermann was as mad as a bag of ferrets but Alden’s approach didn’t allow his (ir)rationale or “motivation” to develop. Stylised as it all was, it was difficult to understand why he did what he did, or indeed why he went nuts.

At times I thought back to how Bieito would have done it: intelligent interaction with principals, the feeling of something at stake, but no. Here our director was too busy with showing us how much he didn’t really care about Queen of Spades.

Nevertheless Hoare did a good job, especially considering he was a late notice replacement. He gave a lot and committed himself to the music with strong results. One or two times I thrilled to hear him achieve the notes he did. As some have said he is not perhaps a natural Hermann, but we can’t all have Domingo in his prime every night. His voice is not the most expansive at the top, but I didn’t mind. He did well, and I am sure can be proud of it. The final scene was particularly noteworthy, it sounds like a big sing, and Hoare didn’t show signs of flagging, remaining on target throughout.

So too Giselle Allen gave us an excellent account of the role of Lisa, Hermann’s doomed love interest. Her dusky soprano is dramatic and depthful, secure throughout the register and indeed her low notes (the “oh my emotions hurt” register) were very good indeed, development into full chest voice and beyond from there assured and easy. The big notes came easy, and were given good colour, and her diction was excellent. A real pleasure to hear. I was saddened she didn’t get more applause at the end of the show come curtain call, as was Mr Hoare by the look of it. He seemed disappointed too, by the magnitude of applause he got. I thought her performance the best of the night.

I mean, seriously.

I mean, seriously. Think about Tchaikovsky, and this score, and then look at this picture. David Alden, please just stop.

The more I praise the musical forces, the more I can try and put aside memories of the staging: the incongruity of seeing those actors in animal costume remove their costume-heads and toss them in the air as they praise the Tsarina, the fact that the intermezzo saw Katie Bird dressed up as a slutty French maid in stockings, that ballerino (Colin Judson) in a tutu, the fact there is yet again, another pseudo-Drosselmeyer creeping around the stage, and the fact that Alden has Hoare climb a small tower of chairs to shoot himself, which reminds me: there’s a lot of chair abuse here. Gregory Dahl as Tomsky straddles a chair (and also abuses Catherine Young‘s Pauline who is sitting in that chair, and at this point my heebie jeebie meter started rising because hadn’t Alden learned from his Otello where he made Stuart Skelton do the exact same move?  Skelton took a nasty fall, hurt his knee and had to withdraw from a few shows, indeed I think he needed surgery. So too, that chair tower….yikes!

Having just mentioned Young’s Pauline, I have to say I was not bowled over by her. She didn’t seem fully at ease with the singing, and I didn’t like her voice much as a result, but everyone else loved her, especially the guy behind me who was loudly biting his nails at every moment. (Maybe Alden’s staging worked for some people!).

Felicity Palmer held the Coli largely hushed in stillness by the force of her “Je crains de lui…” her voice still rich and effective – one of the genuinely memorable moments of the night (for good reasons). As to memorably bad reasons, I am not going to mention the stupid creepy nannies with perambulators, nor the ridiculous gesturing, hand jives and dancing which punctuated proceedings peformed by the ENO Chorus. Such was there singing that they nearly made me forget about all this lunacy – nearly, but not quite. Their massed liturgy for the dead was beautiful, the opening townspeople’s serenade to Spring was rousing, everything they did was lovely. They are the finest chorus in town without a doubt.

The kids were great again, the orchestra fabulous: the hush that Gardiner developed for Palmer’s aria, a ppp on the edge of audibility was exquisite. Instrumental sections fully understood the task Gardiner gave them, but some of his decisions seemed to deform the score a little. The intermezzo was convincingly fey. Brass offstage and in the pit were confident and flub-free (I say this thinking of another opera band up the road from St Martin’s Lane) and all played well. This was a fine swansong for the conductor. Let’s hope Wigglesworth can do equally well.

Unlike the people behind me, I didn’t snigger throughout but I did let fall my head in disappointment in places. Maybe I am just old fashioned? An honest realistic portrayal would have had naturalism undergirt by wonderful music from pit and stage. As it was, the fine musical forces shone through, but were sunk by the weight of Alden’s peverse intent. A real shame.

6/10

NOTES

* Alden probably stole this from Glyndebourne’s wonderful Fairy Queen.

*Semi serious question here.

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6 comments

    1. I think it was updated. Some outraged people in the ENO comments section being outraged, have tried to be assuaged by some ENO peon, who says Alden updated it into the 20th Century, like….the whole 20th Century in general. To be honest, it is a bit of a farrago. I mean…the QoS herself would have been about 200 years old given her memories of who she gambled with. The animal costumes are 21st Century from China, the lighting and skirts was 60s, the music was 19thC….etc. I’ll admit that Alden’s Grimes was kooky and had the same stupid dancing/jiveing but somehow that worked. Not here. A guy I know in the chorus says it is a tough show to pull off with their direction as it is, and I can see why.

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      1. sometimes I think directors update for the sake of updating… should’ve just made Hermann a proper addict then, the kind we’re used to nowadays.

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  1. When I did Otello with Stuart Skelton at ENO last Fall he was already suffering from knee problems before the rehearsals began. We worked together carefully to figure out how he could give a full-on physical performance without any injuries. You can like or dislike my productions of course, but please do not report untruths which suggest negligence or a lack of professionalism on my part. I can assure you that Stuart and I have a fantastic working relationship and I am very very experienced and aware of safety on stage and what singers are capable of doing ohysically.

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    1. also I did not see The Fairy Queen at Glyndebourne, and it is not my way to steal from other directors (unless they are Pina Bausch …)

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      1. My apologies. You are right: good directors have no need to steal, I more accurately should merely have said I was reminded of that GB production. And, I do not doubt that every care is taken to ensure the well-being and safety of your performers. Thank you for reading my thoughts and for commenting.

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