Queen of Spades, Opera North, Barbican, November 2011

Three, Seven, Ace — that’s the secret the old Countess tells Herman in her brief return from beyond the grave. She did it beautifully, Josephine Barstow singing this role in an utterly compelling way. A perfect Countess, well backed up by Jonathan Summers as Tomsky, who gave a gripping Act I account of the Countess’s young life in Paris, and William Dazeley as a noble Prince Yeletsky.

The Card Game in Act III, all images Bill Cooper

The staging by Neil Bartlett was simple but effective, and I liked the small lights around the edge of the stage, giving a nice late eighteenth century touch. This is after all set in the reign of Catherine the Great, who attends the ball in Act II appearing on the audience side of the auditorium, if the performers on stage were to be believed. And indeed they were entirely believable, except for the main pair, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as Herman, and Orla Boylan as Lisa. Both had their good moments, their vocal performances were uneven, and their stage presentations left much to be desired. He looked like the Act III version of Baron Ochs from Rosenkavalier with his wig missing, and evinced little of the desperately obsessive passion that Tchaikovsky invested in this role. Her matronly appearance carried no conviction as the sheltered girl who falls for this nutcase and gives up her fiancé, Prince Yeletsky. Admittedly Tchaikovsky’s opera, with its libretto by his brother Modest, along with Pyotr Ilyich’s own emendations, is a far cry from Pushkin’s original novella, and the roles of Herman and Lisa are difficult ones to inhabit, but these were not convincing portrayals.

The Countess at the ball

The orchestra gave a good rendering of the score under the direction of Richard Farnes, not helped by the very dry acoustic of the Barbican Theatre. Better is the Barbican Concert Hall, and far better would have been Sadler’s Wells. This is not a good venue for opera, as it gives little feeling of ensemble to the orchestra. Moreover the orchestra pit was too small, so the trombones and trumpets were on stage right, with percussion and harp on stage left, and though the players did well to handle the situation, it is not ideal. I imagine this came over much better in Leeds.

Lisa and Herman at the ball

One small point about the production is that the card game of faro in Act III seemed too abstract, with no money on the table. Herman thinks he has drawn the player’s card, an ace, while the dealer’s card is a queen. In fact he holds the queen of spades — the killer that destroys him, just as his obsession led directly to the death of the Countess, and indirectly to the death of Lisa. Tchaikovsky found himself very much in sympathy with Herman’s obsessions in this opera and wrote the music in little more than six weeks. If you haven’t seen it before, performances continue until November 24 — for details click here.

Leave a Comment