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WNO ANON March 2014
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Opera North at the Grand Theatre, Leeds, October 28

 

The Queen of Spades

 

Rodney Milnes

 

To judge from newspaper reports and indeed from travellers’ tales, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts was not in sound vocal health on the first night, which must have caused general nervousness within the company—the notices for this ambitious undertaking were pretty muted. By this, the fourth performance, Lloyd-Roberts was on fine form with a generous supply of ringing top notes, and the evening was on the whole as gripping as Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece ought to be. Of course, in a relatively small house the purely musical impact is doubled, but I was struck by the extreme care the composer took with balance. He ensures throughout that all the words you need to hear are easily audible, and the surtitles were certainly not needed here, indeed they detracted from the overall effect. Words written to be sung are not necessarily words that should be read, and the titles underlined the banality of some of the rhymes in the new translation by the director Neil Bartlett and Martin Pickard.

 

The evening got off to a bad start, with the conductor Richard Farnes choosing inexplicably ponderous tempos for each ‘movement’ of the Overture, and at curtain rise we saw the children mocking Herman, shouting something along the lines of ‘You are Mr Herman’, a line that was not titled and of course shouldn’t be there at all—red rag to a text-freak. Thereafter Farnes settled down to a well-paced reading, and drew an exciting account of the score from the orchestra and chorus, both on very good form.

 

As I said, an ambitious undertaking for a not exactly over-funded company, and the designers were presumably told they could have sets, or costumes, but not both. Kandis Cook’s plain, beige walls did for all the settings, and you soon got used to that. Her costumes were in period and handsomely so. Perhaps the money ran out by the end: the gambling den should surely look a bit more like the Bullingdon Club than this.

 

Lloyd-Roberts has been an outstanding Peter Grimes at this address, and his Herman had pre-echoes of that other operatic ‘outsider’ figure—Tchaikovsky and Britten may have thought of themselves as outsiders, and knew what they were writing about. I found his characterization utterly, tragically convincing. I believed in him, and he inspired a certain almost overwhelming empathy, which I am sure is what the composer intended. This is not an operatic freak-show; Tchaikovsky loved his protagonist—listen to the final bars—and Lloyd-Roberts was entirely worthy of his concept.

 

Orla Boylan, none too flatteringly costumed, had all the notes and power for Lisa, and rose to her last-act aria. Jonathan Summers—did he really makes his professional debut 36 years ago? Yes, I was there—was a characterful Tomsky, almost as troubled as Herman and with frequent resort to a hip flask. William Dazeley sang Yeletsky’s aria as beautifully as it needs to be sung. Alexandra Sherman was a mezzo rather than a contralto Pauline, and very musical, and Fiona Kimm was a formidable Governess. Her French lines were left in French in the titles, but Chekalinsky‘s ‘Se non è vero, è ben trovato’ was translated, not very flattering to an Opera North audience.

 

I had one big problem with Bartlett’s generally straightforward production—his treatment of the Countess. There was no question of Josephine Barstow looking old and grotesque, any more than there was when Régine Crespin used to take the role. Barstow is a very handsome woman, and was handsomely costumed, with a backless ball gown in the second act. She could easily attract a fatal third lover, and that was how she treated Herman, welcoming him to her bedroom, and returning at the final curtain to snog his corpse. Her death was absurdly melodramatic—the two chords simply ignored as she (almost literally) chewed the scenery—and when as a ghost she told Herman of the three cards she had covered the cropped hair of the previous scene with a smart new wig. Of course she sang powerfully, but the Grétry was taken too slowly and the second verse was virtually inaudible. Cynics might suggest that there was an element of ‘a star vehicle for Dame Jo’ in the production. Perish the thought.

 
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