Classical composure

The Queen of Spades | New Theatre, Cardiff
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Onegin was no one-off. Tchaikovsky composed 10 operas, if you include the discarded Undine. The Queen of Spades, for which the composer and his brother Modest revamped Pushkin's Dostoyevskian psychodrama, emerged in the early 1890s, between the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies (shades of the latter infect the wonderful orchestration). Only Yolanta followed before the composer pursued Pushkin's gnarled beauty queen to his own demise in l893.

Onegin was no one-off. Tchaikovsky composed 10 operas, if you include the discarded Undine. The Queen of Spades, for which the composer and his brother Modest revamped Pushkin's Dostoyevskian psychodrama, emerged in the early 1890s, between the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies (shades of the latter infect the wonderful orchestration). Only Yolanta followed before the composer pursued Pushkin's gnarled beauty queen to his own demise in l893.

This is a stupendous production. Welsh National Opera has recycled, triumphantly, the team which spooked us with Hansel and Gretel last season. Vladimir Jurowski, Glyndebourne's music director-elect, coaxes such devastatingly beautiful sounds from the orchestra in this extraordinary, allusive, polymath score that you'd think, from the string sound alone, you were in Dresden or St Petersburg. Their overture socks you between the eyes; the woodwind gnaws at your vitals; the brass sears.

Richard Jones's staging is (by and large) so understatedly malevolent, so artfully plotted and so subliminally haunting that the true horror of it only creeps up on you (in bed, but let me not give the game away). Herman's obsession seems initially to be with Lizaveta (Susan Chilcott), the Countess's granddaughter and ward; only gradually does the fixation upon three cards (three, seven, ace) which unites the pique dame's death (in her bath, with a graphic shudder) with his own - in Pushkin he goes insane; in the opera, already deranged, he shoots himself at the gaming-table - achieve its grisly hold.

Yet the figure three crops up everywhere: in Tchaikovsky's nail-driving score, in John Macfarlane's triad of garish facial frontdrops, whose Poe-like winking eye resurfaces, as if subconsciously, on the grey-wash walls; in the triple park bench where Tomsky (Robert Hayward), Chekalinsky (Peter Hoare) and Surin (Matthew Hargreaves) - all superb - suborn and manipulate the malleable Herman (a Jedermann?) like the Three Fates, and where the final doomed midnight assignation between him and Liza plays like some deadly coitus interruptus.

Jones links scenes with a Mephistophelean sense of timing: characters sidle across the stage, or hover just inside the proscenium, like bad memories; Yeletsky's (Garry Magee) aria, shifted frontstage for the reprise, subtly alters focus; the Countess (Susan Gorton), who seems to be ever-shuffling nowhere, is replicated in death by a diminutive look-alike as grim as the ghoul in Don't Look Now. Tomsky summons the courtiers to the ball as if to a dance of death; and in Macfarlane's Regency sets, you see and smell decay.

The most brilliant, polished set piece is the Act Two pastoral, as deadly a parody as Hamlet's "Murder of Gonzago", played out by puppeteers (Chris Pirie, Amy Rose, and members of the superb chorus) in one of the most mesmerising bits of theatre I've seen in years. But the children's chorus, the Act One duet of Liza and Polina, the rapt, quavering reminiscence aria of the doomed Countess, and even Herman's big set-piece arias (the Kirghiz-born Bolshoi tenor Vitali Taraschenko - an amazing voice) are all stunning. Tchaikovsky puts not a foot wrong; and nor does WNO. Worth bartering the family silver to see.

* to 13 Oct (029-2087 8889)

Comments