OPERA / Dusting off the old sheets: Edward Seckerson reviews a revival of Queen of Spades at the Coliseum
Writer and broadcaster Edward Seckerson is Chief Classical Music and Opera Critic for The Independent. He wrote and presented the long-running BBC Radio 3 series Stage & Screen, in which he interviewed many of the most prominent writers and stars of musical theatre. He appears regularly on BBC Radio 3 and 4. On television, he has commentated a number of times at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. He has published books on Mahler and the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and has been on Gramophone Magazine's review panel for many years. Edward presented the 2007 series of the Radio 4 music quiz Counterpoint. He has interviewed everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Liza Minelli; from Paul McCartney to Pavarotti: from Julie Andrews to Jessye Norman.
Monday 05 April 1993
Pountney's strongest images are still those which scrutinise Hermann, which place him like an insect under the microscope. The bleaching overhead light which traps him centre stage in his inner-circle of hell, the terrible storm which engulfs him (the drapes blowing in on him like every B-movie nightmare you've ever seen), the empty chairs which point again and again to his isolation. But it's more than a technical overhaul that this show needs. The regimented proletariat has become a Pountney cliche, a parody of itself, and other details like the presence of Lisa's lifeless body throughout the denouement in the gambling hall could work but don't. When I think of how Pountney might have developed the hallucinatory aspects of his staging - the multiple image of the Countess (half- heartedly explored in the moment of Hermann's undoing), the gigantic projection of the Countess's form in the moment that the Empress Catherine arrives at the fancy dress ball - the memory of these moments is far stronger than the reality.
But then, such theatrical shortcomings might still have been strengthened, even transcended, in the musical realisation. In accomplished hands, Tchaikovsky's 24-carat masterpiece packs a terrible punch. Not here: this disappointing revival has been fatally undercast. One sympathises with the central dilemma: how do you cast Hermann, a role whose prerequisites are a great actor and cast-iron character tenor for whom the high tessitura is not just possible but comfortable. Graeme Matheson-Bruce sounded worryingly insecure in almost every respect. He has the brave, blade-like top notes but not the raw intensity to fill them. Elsewhere in the voice, support came and went, the characterisation lacked colour, fibre and the pain that is Tchaikovsky's pain. There was no madness in it, no danger. Janice Cairns was at even more of a loss to flesh out a character from Lisa. She gave us big harassed top notes, but they came from nowhere. The voice is not sounding centred, intonation in quieter passages slips disconcertingly.
Quite the best singing of the evening came from Anthony Michaels- Moore as Prince Yeletsky, though Patricia Payne tapped commandingly into her eerie stillnesses as the Countess. The key scene with Hermann was one of very few to come off the page. Sian Edwards seemed suddenly to pull-focus on the intimate starkness of the orchestral writing - the sinister flickering of clarinets like the tongues of reptiles.
ENO's Music Director designate still has some way to go with this piece: she has the broader outlines, the sweep and propulsion, but not yet the inner-tensions, the pungency of the score's predominantly dark colourations.
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