Long before crossing the iron gate of the Lowell House on Wednesday night, I was wondering what on earth the company would do to make sense of the rambling narrative of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades.
The story has its problems. The 1833 novella by Pushkin was sparse and deadpan in its brutal treatment of the irrational desire to control the cards magically. The passionate belief in endless possibilities of going all in when you have a supernatural edge—as long as the stars were aligned—ruined many a young man of Pushkin’s generation. In the novella, we observe how Russian irrationality chewed through and spat out Gherman, a perfectly rational German and a specimen of what a century later would be called the Protestant ethic.
By the time Tchaikovsky, court composer to the virulently nationalist Alexander III, was writing his opera, the accents had to shift. The 1891 work presented a dark blend of greed and Romantic amour fou that wreaks havoc on an otherwise happy family. All could have been prevented if only Lisa could be cleansed of the Western romantic poison and allowed to dance and sing Russian folksongs!
Of course the opera also had to entertain. And musical charm went hand in hand with Zeitgeist: the opening scene featured a lovely children’s chorus singing about defeating the enemies of Russia. In the Bolshoi production from the 1980s, those children proudly escorted some presumably captured enemies of Russia with their hands stuck up through the center stage. Then again, that’s how children used to play in those days.
None of this works too well now, so it was not surprising that the opening scene did not make it into the LHO staging. The pompous hymn to Catherine the Great from the second act also got cut—rightly so in the case of this act of imperial allegiance, which had felt disconnected from the plot to begin with.
But the opera still needs a narrative, and the company led by stage director Roxanna Myhrum chose a setting more suitable for the modern sensibility. The solution was to treat the whole story as a stream of tortured recollections of a madman, with Russian aristocratic milieu replaced with asylum staff in white uniforms. Maybe it wasn’t such a paradoxical decision, given that a vast number of participants were Life Science majors. Who knows how we will be perceiving future opera productions once some of the polymaths of last night accomplish their innovations in the pharmaceutical industry? But from the point of view of holding on to whatever was left of the original plot, this approach did not make much sense. Even if it was prudent to under-emphasize and shorten Tchaikovsky’s Russian idylls in the first scene, interpreting whatever was left as drug-induced euphoria is illogical. It brought a moment of bizarre thrill to the audience, but did away with any ability to follow the story.
Still, when you bring together a bunch of excited opera lovers, it takes more than plot destruction to impinge on pleasure. Some of Tchaikovsky’s best music, heard in the intimate vicinity of the orchestra, surrounded by the high-quality chorus, whatever their uniforms, kept the magic alive. The stage set was rather traditional, though with Caligariesque skewed geometry. Hardly sufficient to repair the plot, it was nevertheless pleasing to the eye, effective in some of the duets, and a huge advance above a concert performance.
Most importantly, the show was carried by excellent musicmaking. Both Adam Klein as Gherman and Zoya Gramagin as Lisa achieved major-league successes and their Russian enunciation was excellent—not surprising for Klein, a Russian native. Klein projected the full force of obsession when needed, yet also brought to the part the great tradition of vibrato and tentative recitative pitch.
The duet of Lisa and Pauline was not only gorgeously led by Gramagin but also beautifully accompanied by the orchestra, creating one the most satisfying moments of the evening, even though its connection to the narrative was lost.
Throughout, one could follow the musical line. Lydia Yankovskaya led the orchestra with intelligence and sensitivity. The sound was lush. The obsequious fuss of the Old Countess’s retinue was both fun and funny, the liturgical funeral music fully idiomatic, with powerful assistance of the chorus, in this case wisely concealed behind the set, giving the decorations themselves a chance to escape the nuthouse.
It all ended as it should, with multiple deaths, some by injection, and a hint of Liebestod catharsis in the strings.