No "Onegin," Tchaikovsky's "The Queen of Spades" has fine, but unmemorable
music and a story that entertains, but probably does not move the listener.
To produce "Onegin" well, all you need is to stay out of the way; "Queen
of Spades" needs a bit of help.
As the San Francisco Opera premiered the Welsh National Opera production
in the War Memorial today, it became quickly and joyfully clear that
Richard Jones and John Macfarlane provided the extra support so that
Donald Runnicles' brilliantly "Russian" music direction and an excellent
cast could - and did - raise "Queen" to an unaccustomed throne.
At times excessive and intrusive, aggressive direction and eye-popping
sets nevertheless added up to a compelling, consistent framework. The
curtain goes up on an enormous close-up portrait of the young Countess,
in her "Venus of Moscow" days, but an overlay soon ages the face by a
half a century (or more), showing the Countess as she will appear in the
opera. Near the end of the story, the same portrait becomes a death
Ian Robertson's Opera Chorus, in a superb vocal performance, is kept in
constant motion by Jones, strolling, rushing, reacting to events or just
"acting weird." It may appear too much at times, but there is a logical
link between the work and the choreography; even when it doesn't quite
work, the hyperactive stage movement is meant well, it's not a director's
arrogant, self-absorbed in-your-face act.
Under Runnicles' caring direction (with the orchestra in prime form),
vocal performances were cradled and put in best light. In the title
role, for example, Hanna Schwarz exhibited both power and as much beauty
as can be wrung out from this "ugly" role, but at one point, the score
calls for a fairly long pianissimo passage. The way Runnicles balanced
the orchestra against Schwarz's near-whisper was typical of the musical
direction throughout the performance.
Support from the large cast for Katarina Dalayman's powerful Lisa and
Misha Didyk's crystal-clear Gherman (an unmistakably lyrical tenor with
a heldentenor ability to fill the house) was without a weak link. Tomas
Tomasson's Tomsky did not need the pre-curtain announcement about his
indisposition - the Icelandic bass was terrific, along with John Hancock's
Prince Yeletsky and Adam Klein's Chekalinsky.
It was especially heartening to hear so many young Opera Center singers
in this production, led by Nikki Einfeld's major-league Mascha. Among
the others: Katherine Rohrer (Paulina), Catherine Cook (Governess), Sean
Panikkar (Chaplitsky), Joshua Bloom (Narumoff), and Thomas Glenn (Master
There are hundreds of shticks in the production, some excellent, some
unintentionally comic and attention-diverting, but there is one sequence
(in two "acts") that's pure genius. The long, and musically blah ballet
scene in Act 2 has been transformed by Jones into a puppet play, taking
place on a tilted green round table - the same prop (enlarged) becomes
the final scene's card table on which the opera's characters meet their
destiny, looking like puppets. The local Lunatique Fantastique puppeteers
put on a technically amazing, enchanting show that serves the story and
music much better than any ballet could.
Within one scene - the opening of Act 3, in Gherman's quarters - there
were clear examples of both the effectiveness and over-reach of the
Jones-Macfarlane production. Gherman is in his bed for the dream scene
in which the Countess' ghost discloses the secret of the cards... except
that Macfarlane constructed a huge bed placed vertically upstage, in
a stunning play with perspectives. When Gherman stops reading Lisa's
note and drops the paper, it sticks to the wall, looking as if it were
dropped next to a horizontally-located bed - a simple touch that "makes
a difference" by maintaining the perspective. On the other hand, the
Countess makes her ghost appearance in form of a skeleton popping up on
the pillow next to Gherman. The obvious reaction: laughter, completely
uncalled for in the context of the work. And yet, in spite of such
missteps, the whole of the production does work.
To return to the "Onegin"-"Queen" differentiation, one deserves
attendance at every performance, the other usually is taken care of
by a single visit. But with the production and musical values of this
"Queen of Spades," two or three hearings are more in order.
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