Queen of Spades, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, June 2015

The moment the orchestra plunged into Tchaikovsky’s overture they promised a superb reading of the score under the baton of Ed Gardner, and we were treated to a musical performance full of energy, tension and passion. One only regrets that this was Gardner’s last opera as music director for the ENO before taking over as principal conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic — though he will return next summer to conduct Tristan.

Lisa, Countess, Yelitsky

Lisa, Countess, Yelitsky

Phenomenal singing from the chorus too, in their 1960s costumes — a surrealistic production of a surrealistic opera — the men’s chorus looking like a mix of businessmen and jackbooted bus drivers. Yes, I know they were soldiers but the body language said bus drivers. And that was symptomatic of David Alden’s production — poor movement on stage suggesting a lack of conviction and focus. Wonderful ensemble singing though, and the gently subdued ending was sensational, only spoiled by rustling noises from the chorus as they flicked playing cards around.

Certainly this is an opera about gambling, but the game is Faro. Does the director know this, and how can he expect anyone to accept a gamble against Hermann when he simply produces cards from his pocket? This was a pity because the second half was better than the first, which included a homosexual orgy and people popping up with large Disney-like heads, perhaps representing a loss of human emotion like ‘The Story of O’.

Hermann ready to die by Lisa's hand, all images ENO/ Donald Cooper

Hermann ready to die by Lisa’s hand, all images ENO/ Donald Cooper

Yet production aside the singers took time to get into their stride, and it was only during the ball scene that things really began to gel, particularly when Nicholas Pallesen produced beautifully lyrical singing in Prince Yeletsky’s aria. A fine moment, but it was Peter Hoare as the obsessive Hermann who really did the heavy lifting, giving depth to Tchaikovsky’s realisation of Pushkin’s famous story.

Hermann and the Countess

Hermann and the Countess

Hoare is a fine exponent of such strange roles, and as his nemesis the old Countess, Felicity Palmer gave a nuanced portrayal that moved from being imperious to all too human. Their final scene together was very convincingly played. In the difficult role of her granddaughter Lisa, Giselle Allen exuded fine emotional power towards the end after a slightly uncertain start, and the supporting roles were largely very well sung, Gregory Dahl showing vocal firmness and excellent stage presence as Tomsky, Colin Judson and Wyn Pencarreg both singing strongly as Chekalinsky and Surin, and Peter Van Hulle a delight as Chaplitsky.

All in all a terrific musical performance, particularly from the orchestra and chorus, though despite his recent ENO successes with Peter Grimes and Otello, David Alden’s production made this gripping opera seem rather tedious.

Performances, all starting at 7 pm, continue on various dates until July 2 — for details click here.

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