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Welsh National Opera's 'Queen of Spades'


Some critics of the day panned Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades (Pique Dame, or Pikovaya Dama in Russian) for being too eclectic . They must have been out of their minds. But the label has stuck. Tchaikovsky's gift for reaching back - with tangible love and sensitivity - to encompass Mozartian parody, Orthodox liturgy and Renaissance courtliness within a single strand perhaps seemed too clever by half. Yet it is one of the chief elements - the dark, Dostoievskian pessimism of the Pushkin tale it's based on is another - that makes The Queen of Spades, the composer's last opera but one, another Rusalka : not so much a summation of the l9th century, as a preface, like Ibsen or Strindberg, to the intensities of 20th century psychological opera and drama.

Welsh National Opera have done it again. Their Queen of Spades is one of the most consistently gripping pieces of opera staging by WNO in years. Everything about it - the wit, the black humour, the pathos, and the tragedy of its antihero's psychological dissolution is set in such brilliant relief that the tension of the drama never lets up for a minute. True, Tchaikovsky's study of Herman, the central character who effectively sells his soul to the devil to prise from an old lady the secret of three winning cards that will win him a fortune is not as stark - or as textually strong, in the condensed libretto produced in collaboration with his brother Modest - as in Pushkin's novella; this Herman is not quite a Raskolnikov, indeed his qualms and the love of his would-be runaway bride, Liza, all but redeem him. In the final midnight encounter by the canal, both might almost yet pull back from the brink. Only her suicide - almost a mere fading from sight, as Herman, in his blind obsession, might have viewed it - loses impact by being played down in this superbly well-phased production.

For The Queen of Spades, sung in Russian with surtitles, WNO have brought together a provenly winning team, all of whom collaborated on their widely-hailed Hansel and Gretel : director Richard Jones, whose ENO Pelleas (dominated by Robert Hayward's Golaud) and Covent Garden Ring Cycle are still fresh in the mind; designer John Macfarlane; Lighting Designer Jennifer Tipton (and with what superb results : the shadows alone were Oscar-worthy); and the Russian conductor-elect of Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Vladimir Jurowski.

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Copyright © 23 September 2000 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK




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