Review: Spades with little heart

Lacking in immediacy, the opera makes up for it in golden melody, says Raymond Monelle; The Queen of Spades Scottish Opera Theatre Royal, Glasgow
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The changes made by Modest Tchaikovsky, the composer's brother and librettist, to Pushkin's story The Queen of Spades might have produced an opera full of ambiguities and subtleties. The hero, Herman, becomes a Byronic outsider, suffering a conflict between love of woman and love of gambling; his low birth contrasts him with the young aristocrat who is his rival. But the Tchaikovsky brothers were not interested in any of this. They were looking for melodrama, cliche, colour, coups de theatre. The opera, almost Tchaikovsky's last, is theatre rather than drama, spectacle rather than art. It does not involve the emotions at all.

In a certain sense, Yannis Kokkos's splendid new production for Scottish Opera underlines this. It looks accomplished and elegant, all black and white and grey with little touches of bright colour, with every scene acted on a broad, diagonal rostrum with a steeply perspectived backdrop (Kokkos is his own designer). The big choral masses, including children, dancers and masqueraders, are cleverly marshalled, and Patrice Trottier's lighting is extremely telling - strong back-lights for fear, a golden glow for narratives of the past, and so on.

But the unmotivated nature of all these lurid goings-on (ghostly visitations, two suicides, a disastrous loss at the card tables) is stressed by the casting of two profoundly uncommunicative singers in the main roles. Vladimir Kuzmenko, as Herman, sings with a massive, ringing tenor that becomes spasmodic and husky when it sinks into piano, enormously impressive on the crest of Tchaikovsky's great phrases but without intimacy or pathos. Lisa, the girl he falls for, is sung by Elmira Magomedova Veda (how good it was to hear real Russian, even if Kuzmenko was Ukrainian and Veda from Daghestan). Her rich, dark soprano is a typical product of the Russian conservatoires, thick and noble but without tenderness. When she sang with the mezzo Michelle Walton it was Walton, with the lower voice, who sounded fresh, liquid, almost soubrettish. The two lovers, however, tended to stand three yards apart and declaim into the middle distance.

But the general level of performance - if we forget about dramatic engagement - was very high. Alexander Poliakovs (Tomsky) had all the wit and candour which the principals lacked, and Boris Trajanov, recently Scottish Opera's Rigoletto, was colourful and impulsive as Yeletsky. Particularly good was Jadwiga Rappe as the aged Countess; she conveyed bitterness and loss with a credible poignancy, her sad little song in French touching the heart.

What it lacks in immediacy this opera partly makes up in variety and golden melody. The conductor, Richard Armstrong, launched the big dance rhythms with power and swing, making much of the dense string harmonies and lavish brass. The little pastoral play in Act 2, a Mozartian pastiche, was an engaging curiosity, and there were songs with piano, dances, glorious choral scenes, Russian tunes - even a quotation from Gretry. The long evening is over in a flash, but you don't learn much, except what Russian audiences liked in 1890.

The next performances of 'Queen of Spades' are on 28 May and 3 June (box office: 0141 332 9000)

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