Sir Andrew Davis comes full circle at Lyric Opera with ‘Queen of Spades’

The Tchaikovsky opera was the first one Davis conducted when he arrived at Lyric 20 years ago; it will among his final productions before he steps down from his post at the 2020-21 season’s end.

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Lyric Opera of Chicago music director Sir Andrew Davis will be conducting “Queen of Spades.”

Lyric Opera of Chicago music director Sir Andrew Davis will be conducting “Queen of Spades.”

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

When Andrew Davis arrived as just the second music director ever of Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2000-01, the first work the British conductor took on was “The Queen of Spades,” a less frequently seen opera by famed composer Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Through coincidence or design (Davis doesn’t recall exactly whose idea it was), it will also be one of the final operas he leads with the company before stepping down from his post at the end of the 2020-21 season.

Queen of Spades

Lyric Opera of Chicago — ‘The Queen of Spades’

When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 15; 7 p.m. Feb. 19; 2 p.m. Feb. 23 and 26 and March 1

Where: Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker

Tickets: $39-$299

Info: lyricopera.org

“I’m delighted about that,” he said of conducting the 1890 Russian opera. “To be coming back to that is a great joy.”

From Feb. 15 through March 1, he will lead five performances of a production that debuted at the Welsh National Opera in 2000 and has been revived by multiple companies in Europe and North America since.

Based on a Gothic-tinged short story by Alexander Pushkin, “Queen of Spades” revolves around Gherman, a military officer (Sycamore, Ilinois, tenor Brandon Jovanovich). He throws aside his love for Lisa (soprano Sondra Radvanovsky) to destructively pursue a secret for winning at cards known only to the young woman’s grandmother, the Countess (mezzo-soprano Jane Henschel).

Unlike Tchaikovsky’s better-known “Eugene Onegin,” which has a more intimate feel overall, Davis described “Queens of Spades” as a full-blown “blood-and-thunder opera.”

“The Queen of Spades” pictured in a staging by the Canadian Opera Company, will be presented at Lyric Opera.

“The Queen of Spades” as staged by the Canadian Opera Company, will be presented at Lyric Opera starting Feb. 15.

Michael Cooper/Courtesy of Canadian Opera Company

“There’s a big storm scene,” he said. “There’s a ghost. And there’s a wonderful offstage choir singing this kind of Russian Orthodox music. It’s just fantastic. And the two main characters, Gherman and Lisa, are really very powerfully portrayed and the dynamic between them is remarkable, so it’s an evening of high drama.”

Benjamin Davis (no relation to Andrew Davis), who is overseeing Lyric’s staging, was so enamored with the 2000 premiere that he joined the staff of the Welsh National Opera and began working as an assistant to the original director, Richard Jones.

Jones asked him to restage the production in 2009 at that company and the younger director did it again in 2015 at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. “The production works beautifully,” Davis said, “in the way it is conceived to try to bring these five principal characters, like five elements, together, and it’s how they react and really combine and spin off one another that causes this story to unfold.”

Although this staging makes references to the 18th century in which Pushkin situated his original story and parts of the 19th century when the Pushkin and Tchaikovsky were at work, Jones loosely set it in the fascist 1930s.

That period, Davis said, resonates with the “brittle class differences” and “underlying disaffection” of the have-nots that runs through the opera, and it also reflects Tchaikovsky’s musical score, which looks forward to the daring early 20th century operas of Alban Berg.

The design and staging is best described as “expressionistic,” the director said, an approach that makes sense for an opera that is rooted in reality but soon moves into realms of heightened and exaggerated storytelling as the opera charts the degeneration of Gherman’s sanity.

“The Queen of Spades” had its Lyric Opera premiere as part of the 2000-2001 season.

“The Queen of Spades” had its Lyric Opera premiere as part of the 2000-2001 season.

Robert Kusel

Puppetry is used to perform a little Mozartean opera presented as a divertissement during the ballroom scene in Act 2, and puppets appear in an increasingly extreme, expressionistic form as Gherman’s distorted view of his world takes over the opera.

Andrew Davis, 76, originally planned to leave his post this season following the company’s milestone presentation of Richard Wagner’s 15-hour set of four operas – “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (“The Ring of the Nibelung”) in April and May. But Lyric officials persuaded him to stay one more season, and the conductor is glad of the extension.

He will lead a gala concert and three operas in 2020-21 including the North American premiere of British composer George Benjamin’s “Lessons in Love and Violence.” Davis has known Benjamin since he was 18 years old and heard the teenager play his Piano Sonata. “It knocked my socks off,” he said. “It was absolutely amazing.”

The conductor cited several accomplishments during his a tenure including boosting the quality of Lyric’s orchestra, which he called “second to none on the international scene.” He also mentioned the wide and sometimes unexpected range of the more than 60 operas he has conducted from Verdi and Mozart to Berg and Britten.

“I’ve had a wonderful time here in these 20 years, and it will be 21 [next season], which is a long time in one’s life,” he said. “Of course, I’ll be sad when I finally walk out the door for the last time, except it won’t be the last time. I will be coming back to work here after my time ends, so I’m delighted about that.”

Other than some engagements at Lyric, though, he plans to focus mostly on symphonic concerts rather than opera productions in the future. “In terms of the operatic repertoire,” Davis said, “I’ve done pretty much everything I’d like to do.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.

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