‘The Queen of Spades’: No dancing mice in sight as Lyric showcases Tchaikovsky’s darker side
Gifted singers throw themselves into a provocative if at times frustrating revival.
Seeing Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky listed as the musical creator of “The Queen of Spades” can be misleading at first, because the 1890 operatic adaptation of a short story by Alexander Pushkin is a long way from the fun and froth of “The Nutcracker.”
This tale of loss, betrayal and, above all, moral decay seems to turn away from 19th-century Romanticism and look ahead to the existentialism and nihilism of the 20th as it presents a darker, even bleaker side of the justly celebrated composer.
Returning to this tough, multilayered opera that was last seen on its stage 20 years ago, Lyric Opera of Chicago presented Saturday evening the first of five performances of a provocative if at times frustrating revival of a production that debuted at the Welsh National Opera in 2000.
When: 7 p.m. Feb. 19 and 2 p.m. Feb. 23 and 26 and March 1
Where: Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker
Info: (312) 827-5600; lyricopera.org
With a libretto co-written by Tchaikovsky and his brother, Modest, this opera tells the story of two lonely, in some ways desperate people — Gherman (Sycamore, Illinois, tenor Brandon Jovanovich) and Lisa (Sondra Radvanovsky) — from different social classes who improbably fall in love.
But Gherman throws away that love when he becomes obsessed with procuring a secret for winning at cards that Lisa’s grandmother, the Countess (mezzo-soprano Jane Henschel), gained through her own Faustian trade of sex for money.
The Tchaikovsky brothers made sure that “Queen of Spades” was a powerful, consuming opera to start with, but the original director, Richard Jones, chose to heighten and exaggerate the drama and degradation, pushing it almost to the breaking point at times.
He moved the action to the 1930s, a decision that causes some historical inconsistencies because the Russian communists had purged the aristocracy by this time. But the setting is deliberately vague, and it aptly seizes on the societal rot and class divisions that had gripped Europe during this time.
The striking, mostly understated scenery designed by John Macfarlane (except for the front panels at the beginning of each act with bold painted close-ups of the Countess’s progressively aging face), consists of handsome abstract drops and tight, claustrophobic boxes for the interior scenes, with look-down skylights and faded paint and scant furnishings that drive home the overall feeling of decline.
The big question is whether this expressionistic approach, as Benjamin Davis, the director of this revival has described it, helps or hinders. Certainly, there are some compelling moments, such as at the beginning of Act 2, when Prince Yeletsky (baritone Lucas Meachem) confirms his love for his fiancée, Lisa. In a slick piece of stagecraft, Gherman hovers like a specter on a diagonal behind Yeletsky, and as the prince sings unawares, Lisa’s eyes are really on her secret lover.
Also effective is Jones’ use of puppets to perform a foreshadowing little opera offered as a divertissement during the party scene in Act 3. A giant puppet skeleton is also imaginatively used to portray the ghost of the Countess who appears later in Gherman’s bed, but the ensuing laughter was probably not the desired reaction.
What is missing amid Jones’ relentless focus on obsession and decadence is the poignancy and pathos that can be heard in Tchaikovsky’s score, important qualities that might have given the relationship of the two central lovers and, indeed, the entire production more theatrical nuance and emotional resonance.
Beyond all that, there are also some odd changes that seem to be more change for change’s sake than anything else. Why for example does Lisa kill herself by putting a plastic bag (something that was not even invented until the 1960s) over her head instead of jumping into a canal as the libretto calls for? Is it just for the shock value?
Whatever one’s perceptions of the staging, it was hard to find fault with the cast, which threw itself into Jones’ conception. Jovanovich turned in an intense, involving performance, vividly conveying through subtleties of vocal timbre, nervous tics and his sagging body Gherman’s fevered breakdown. He was ideally matched by Radvanovsky, a Lyric regular since 2002 who delivered the kind of vocal heft and expressive depth for which she is well known. Making her Lyric debut was Henschel. The 67-year-old mezzo-soprano showed herself to be a fine actress who has lost little in the way of vocal acumen, as she convincingly portrayed the Countess’ domineering regality and twisted coquettishness.
Also deserving mention were mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong, who made the most of the small role of Pauline, especially her solo in Act 1, and the always-dependable Meachem, who was back after his triumph last fall in the title role of “Don Giovanni.” Returning to the opera with which he began his tenure as Lyric’s music director 20 years ago, Andrew Davis (no relation to Benjamin Davis) offered the kind of compelling, insightful conducting that has consistently distinguished his tenure.
Kyle MacMillan is a Chicago freelance writer.