The Queen of Spades, Grange Park, Hampshire
Così fan tutte, Holland Park, London

This impressive staging of Tchaikovsky's opera manages to be both playful, and deadly serious

Time hurtles and eddies dangerously in The Queen of Spades. Indebted and isolated in a city enthralled by wealth, in love with a girl he cannot hope to marry, and intoxicated by the myth of a winning formula at cards, the gambler Herman falls to perdition, taking his beloved and his nemesis with him.

Director-designer Antony McDonald's dreamlike grey and gold staging for Grange Park Opera responds intuitively to Tchaikovsky's spiralling score, nudging the drama forward to the cusp of the 20th century. As the hobble-skirted matrons, starched nurses and great-coated soldiers of St Petersburg turn their faces to a fleeting burst of sunshine (lighting by Paul Keogan), their children march in honour of the Empress, bayonetting invisible enemies with toy rifles. Within a few years, their world will have changed as violently as that of the ancien régime socialites whose memory is cherished by the Countess (Anne-Marie Owens), a puff of malice in silk and tulle.

Deference and rebellion chafe in the single-sex interiors of McDonald's production as the girls listen to Polina's (Sara Fulgoni) poetry recitation, embroidery needles suspended. The ensuing pillow-fight pre-echoes the brute pantomime of the gaming house. Sexuality is a thing to be smothered, and the shock on the faces of the Countess's maids when they see her naked portrait is one of many perceptive details. Bullied by Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts's Tchekalinsky and Timothy Dawkins' Surin, Herman is lost to two obsessions: marrying Lisa (Anne Sophie Duprels) and winning his fortune. But in St Petersburg only the rich get richer.

Pulsing beneath McDonald's staging is an equally bold orchestral performance. The Queen of Spades marks Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra's Grange Park debut. It's a big, beautiful sound: one that emphasises the thematic connections to Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony but is carefully metred to support the voices (the opera is sung in Russian) by conductor Stephen Barlow, most particularly in the sepia-tinted accompaniment to Polina's air and in the surging despair of Lisa's aria. From Duprels' remorselessly candid Lisa to the bell-like chorus, the frigid precision of Owens' Countess and the heroic self-destruction of Tanner's Herman, it is a remarkable achievement, playful and deadly serious.

Perceptive details are equally abundant in Harry Fehr's bone-china staging of Così fan tutte. Innocent as lambs in their Gainsborough dresses, Elizabeth Llewellyn's Fiordiligi and Julia Riley's Dorabella idle prettily in a Regency garden-room, its cupola echoed in the belljars on the desk of Don Alfonso (Nicholas Garrett). Theirs is to be a very public humiliation, as the Don sets out his thesis on female fickleness to an on-stage audience whose reactions provide counterpoint to the chagrin of Ferrando (Andrew Staples) and Guglielmo (Dawid Kimberg).

Mozart is less forgiving of tonal idiosyncracy than Tchaikovsky, more interested in the mathematics of duet, trio, quartet, quintet and, when Joana Seara's Despina bustles in, sextet. Here, the vocal blend is ideal: pure, supple and perfectly balanced, with pithy support from the City of London Sinfonia under Thomas Kemp. Traditional characterisations are blurred as Staples reveals Ferrando's bitterness, Kimberg softens Guglielmo's loutishness, Riley lends Dorabella thoughtfulness, and Llewellyn makes priggish Fiordiligi human, warm, even funny, in the coloratura pomp of "Come scoglio". For a comedy, Così is bitterly sad.

 

'The Queen of Spades': (01962 737366) to 30 Jun. 'Così fan tutte': (0300 999 1000) to 7 Jul.

Critic's Choice

Alpacas in the Chilterns? Mais oui! Jeremy Sams' Garsington Opera production of Offenbach's Peruvian rom-com La Périchole opens tomorrow at the Wormsley Estate, Oxfordshire. A month ahead of the Proms' John Cage Night, Exaudi's late-night concert at London's Shoreditch Festival explores his spatial music and the spellbinding Hymns and Variations (Thu).

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