Friday 2 September 2016

Tchaikovsky - The Queen of Spades (DNO, 2016)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - The Queen of Spades

Dutch National Opera, 2016

Mariss Jansons, Stefan Herheim, Misha Didyk, Alexey Markov, Vladimir Stoyanov, Andrei Popov, Andrii Goniukov, Mikhail Makarov, Anatoli Sivko, Larissa Diadkova, Svetlana Aksenova, Anna Goryachova, Olga Savova, Maria Fiselier, Pelageya Kurennaya, Morschi Franz, Christiaan Kuyvenhoven

The Opera Platform - July 2016

Never one to take an opera libretto on face value, Stefan Herheim's production of Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades for the Dutch National Opera is another of his composer portrait productions. Herheim is a director who likes to explore a composer's life and times and see how they inform the works they create, and consideration of Tchaikovsky's life, his passions and particularly his repressed homosexuality, make those great works all the more fascinating. Perhaps not so much for anyone less familiar with the composer or someone just wants to see a more straightforward account of Pushkin's tale.

Herheim's previous work at the DNO with Tchaikovsky led to the creation of a Eugene Onegin that presented a kaleidoscopic view of Russian culture and history. As much as Tchaikovsky's intimate love story might have seemed inappropriate for such a grand treatment, it did nonetheless successfully tap into deeper undercurrents of the Russian nature of the work and open up an entirely new perspective on it. The Queen of Spades, by way of contrast, draws back on the Russian nature of the work towards the more intimate and personal, making a direct link between Hermann's mad passions and those of the composer himself.

Herheim might have sidelined Wagner to each of the Act Preludes of his Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg in his previous (unimaginative) composer portrait, but it's clear that Tchaikovsky himself is going to be firmly at the centre of the DNO's The Queen of Spades. The opening scene before the overture shows a man who looks very like Tchaikovsky - but who later principally plays the part of a Yeletsky as an older man - paying a soldier who he has just given a blow-job, a soldier who turns out to be Hermann. It's an image that on the surface has nothing to do with the Queen of Spades and is clearly designed to shock, but it's not without justification for the examination of secret and illicit passions that drive much of the work.

Fired with invigoration and some measure of shame, Tchaikovsky is immediately inspired to pour his feelings into his music, making for the piano with pen and paper to hand to dash down the overture and the opening scene of the Queen of Spades. He then inserts himself into the opera as Yeletsky, who is engaged to marry Liza. A reference to Tchaikovsky's own failed attempt at marriage, Yeletsky's sincere and dignified approaches and his later protestations of love as a deep friendship are also significant. "Tchaikovsky" also flees from Liza's desire to believe in Hermann's sincerity in the bridge scene (which evidently doesn't take place on a bridge). All of this can be seen to mirror in some respects the inappropriateness and unviability of Tchaikovsky's own marriage, particularly as we know from the first scene that Tchaikovsky/Yeletsky's inclinations lean another way.

Thereafter it is impossible not to view Yeletsky as anything else but a surrogate for Tchaikovsky, but we are also invited by Herheim to see Tchaikovsky in Liza's friend Pauline and in other characters. It's as if Tchaikovsky has poured various aspects of his own personality into all the characters in the opera, which is a valid way of looking at art even if it doesn't really take the motivations of the original author Pushkin into consideration. It also tends to become complicated when you try to fit Hermann into the equation. As the person whose mad passions are central to the work, it would seem more obvious to associate Hermann with the composer, but Herheim doesn't always do the obvious.

That's because, to judge by the music and the composition of the opera, Tchaikovsky is evidently a lot more complex a personality than Hermann is in the Queen of Spades. There's a lot of indulgence on the part of Tchaikovsky in the musical arrangements of this work, but these are traits that can also be played upon to good effect, particularly in the second Act with its Pastorale and the grand fanfares to welcome the arrival of Catherine the Great. Herheim seems to poke fun at such extravagances, but at the same time he tries to make it relevant to who Tchaikovsky is, or might be, as the man behind the music. This culminates with Hermann flouncing in as 'the Queen' however, which is more camp than psychological - but then there's always a thin line there where Herheim is concerned. And perhaps Tchaikovsky too.

The mirroring of Tchaikovsky with every element of The Queen of Spades is problematic, but Herheim is not attempting a full deconstruction or psychoanalytical reading of the opera. If you want to you can consider Hermann's obsessive behaviour on a more generalised level as being symptomatic of a pathology that develops when secrets are kept hidden, you could take that from it. Rather than adding layers by including Tchaikovsky himself in the drama, it does seem more of a case of stripping the work back to its bones and exploring the emotions that underlie it.

Much like his production of Eugene Onegin, unless you are very familiar with Tchaikovsky and already know the story of the Queen of Spades, you're not going to get much out of this. Even if you do manage to pick up and piece together the elements that Herheim introduced, the value of those speculative fantasies into Tchaikovsky's motivations are scarcely any more valuable than the work (and Pushkin's work) itself. I suspect that most people would prefer to just see the story told well rather than have all these confusing and contradictory elements weighing it down. Fortunately, the production has much more to offer.

As it often is with Herheim, the production design is extravagantly beautiful. The action takes place mostly in a single drawing room that converts into a ballroom as required - although if you are less literal minded, you could see it as taking place entirely within Tchaikovsky's own mind, which obviously it does on one level. Whichever way you look at it, Philipp Fürhofer's set and costume design is just magnificent, the lighting immaculate in terms of mood as well as simply illuminating the set to look its best. Somehow, the DNO seem to have managed to persuade Mariss Jansons to work with Stefan Herheim again, despite his evident confusion (seen in the behind the scenes feature on the DVD release) over what the director was trying to achieve in their previous collaboration on Eugene Onegin. Jansons; conducting of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra through Tchaikovsky's rich score is just ravishing in its attention to the mood, to the little orchestral flourishes and to the dramatic intent of the work. This is really another wonderful collaboration.

Last but not least, the singing is outstanding. There's really no substitute for a Russian cast singing Russian opera, and the cast here are all marvellous. I've been critical of the anguished whine of Misha Didyk in the past, but he has "filled out" a little in appearance since I last saw him sing this role and that tight, high constricted tenor has also expanded into a fuller, more rounded timbre. It's by no means an easy role to sing at the best of times, but Didyk is impressive here and may even be the ideal Hermann. Because of the dual role and the acting requirements, Yeletsky/Tchaikovsky is more challenging here than the role usually is, but Vladimir Stoyanov is superb, his voice warm, lyrical and sensitive.

Larissa Diadkova is an experienced Countess, and proves her worth here again. Svetlana Aksenova's Liza is also impressive, but there's a feeling that Herheim has paid less attention to the women in the opera, or at least found Tchaikovsky's writing of them to be not as interesting as the male characters. Liza's finale however is well-staged. All the roles are most impressive, and there's much to enjoy simply in the beauty of the singing performances here. And in the choral arrangements. I'm beginning to think that the DNO build their season around works that will show their chorus off in the best possible light. The precision of the employment of the chorus is all important to the wider dynamic of this work and once again, the DNO chorus are nothing short of phenomenal.

Links: The Opera Platform, DNO