Friday, November 4, 2011

Guest blogger EB reviews The Queen of Spades (Opera North at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham, November 4th 2011)

I can remember my last Opera North show in Nottingham vividly, even though it was in 1997. On that occasion I saw Aida, in the wonderful Philip Prowse production and starring the mighty Dame Josephine Barstow in the title role. Opera North is a great company and one I have often travelled north to see (last year's Maria Stuarda and Rusalka were a highlight of the year). The Dame herself was one of the reasons I made the trip this time, for a reprise of the role of the old Countess - the one time "Venus of Moscow" - which I had heard her sing at Covent Garden some years ago.

New productions of Tchaikovsy's beautiful, hallucinatory masterpiece are usually worth travelling for. This version, by controversial director (and opera neophyte) Neil Bartlett, opened last month to a lukewarm critical reception. I can see why, as far from being controversial, it was notable for its lack of excitement or invention. The piece deals in obsession, madness and the supernatural, and invites an imaginative response from a director. Richard Jones managed it spectacularly in his 2001 Welsh National Opera production - one of his best - as did Graham Vick, with his Gothic vision of hell for Glyndebourne in the 1990s.

Bartlett can't seem to decide where his production is pitched. Kandis Cook sets it in a plain gold box. Perhaps it would be charitable to describe its aesthetic as 'economical', with occasionally handsome period costumes and some sticks of cut-price furniture. There is never any sense of grandeur or of the surreal, and the Act 2 ball is a very flat affair, the "stage" for the pastorale (with its tacky light bulbs and parlour palms) being a scenic low point.The chorus direction shifts uncomfortably between the stylised - singing some lines straight at Herman (giving "voice" to his paranoia, if you will) - and the stagy, concert style, facing out front.

The direction of the principals falls flat at some key moments, yet there are other where it snaps thrillingly into focus. Herman's pivotal encounter with the Countess in her bedroom (admittedly one of the best constructed scenes in all opera) is one such. It is played as a seduction, with far more physicality and with a sexual frisson I have never seen before in a scene where the poor lady is usually frozen to her seat. Yet the scenes between Herman and Lisa lacked any sexual chemistry at all (my friend rather unhelpfully described "Alexei Sayle getting it on with Janine Duvitski", an image which unfortunately stayed for the rest of the evening).

Musically we were on far surer ground. The orchestral performance, under music director Richard Farnes, was quite wonderful - much of the drama takes place in the score and Farnes nails both the grand romantic sweep and the wealth of creepy detail (check out the muted strings and bass clarinet in the countess's bedroom scene - incredible musical painting). It is given in English, in a really intelligent and singable translation by Bartlett and Martin Pickard - a vast improvement on the arch and archaic version ENO used in their last revival. Whilst there were surtitles, the soloists' diction was really superb and we could easily have done without them. Impressive.

The singing was of a high standard, with some exceptions. Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts added to his gallery of Opera North antiheroes a role that at times taxes him sorely. It's a huge challenge - the part has an big range and is very long- and at times his unusually forward, "white" voice production is cruelly exposed. That said, he nailed most of the exposed high notes, and his commitment cannot be faulted. Poor Orla Boylan looked an absolute fright in some of the most unflattering outfits and wigs I have seen in a long time, and she was poorly directed. Such a shame, as she flooded this medium sized theatre with plush, vibrant sound at the big moments, and she has musicality to burn. It was wonderful to hear veteran Jonathan Summers, perfectly cast as a seedy, boozy, seen-it-all Tomsky (coincidentally the Amonasro in the 1997 Aida!). William Dazely sang Yeletsky's aria superbly. Hampered by another spectacularly unlovely wig, he lacked charisma, although it was perhaps one of the saddest and most touching portrayals of this thankless role I have seen. Special mention, too, of Alexandra Sherman (it must be odd for a Russian to sing this music in English - but she did so perfectly) who gave an idiomatic and darkly beautiful rendition of Paulina's aria, and for Fiona Kimm's Governess - a veteran performer who stole her short scene.

The best thing about the show by a mile? Dame Josephine as the Countess. She is a singer I have admired ever since I saw her Katerina Ismailova at ENO in 1991, Her Opera North Gloriana is widely regarded as definitive - as is Phyllida Lloyd's production - and certainly one of the best portrayals of anything I have ever seen. She brings her many years of acting experience to bear here. Exuding magnetism, she is cynical and seductive - a close relative of her ageless Emilia Marty with a twist of Salome. Her voice retains its covered, commanding quality - her barked orders to the servants send a chill down the spine - even if it has diminished in volume over the years.

I had the huge honour of meeting Dame Josephine after the show. She is charming, and utterly self deprecating. It made an average production into an evening to treasure.

Next up: More Tchaikovsky - ENO's new Eugene Onegin directed by Deborah Warner

Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton

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