Thanks to a new initiative of the Région Sud, four major opera companies of the Mediterranean region have pooled their artistic, financial and logistical resources to mount a new co-production of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades. The spectacle opened last week at the Opéra de Nice, then will head to Opéra-Toulon Provence-Méditerranée (21, 24 and 26 April 2020), Opéra de Marseille (2, 4, 7 and 9 October 2020) and finally Opéra Grand-Avignon (23 and 25 October 2020).
This new staging of Tchaikovsky’s penultimate opera was entrusted to Olivier Py, best known as the Artistic Director of the Avignon Festival. His conception was fittingly dark and grandiose, but suffered from a hyperactive bustle that distracted from the sumptuous music. During every orchestral interlude, of whatever length, dancers would mime some sort of reduction of one of the plot’s strands. As a result, the audience was never left alone with Tchaikovsky’s music; there was always something to divert one’s attention. The staging was stark, with only a few key symbols on stage: a soldier’s bed, a bare tree trunk with a religious icon, later replaced by a photo of Lisa, and an old upright piano. The piano remained on stage throughout the opera; sometimes briefly played by one or another character, but mostly used as a gymnastic prop for the singers and dancers to climb on, to such an extent that one ended up forgetting it was even there. If this piano was somehow intended to symbolize music, then it aptly demonstrated how in this production music was present, yet far from the centre of the very busy action.
Py and costume and set designer Pierre-André Weitz employed powerful imagery, but sometimes their approach came across as heavy-handed and trendy. Ever since Claus Guth’s Figaro at the Salzburg Festival in 2006, there is a fashion in operatic staging to invent a mute character who does not exist in the libretto, but who hovers over the other characters, often as an incarnation of repressed aspects of their psychology. In Py’s Queen of Spades, a young and mostly undressed male dancer (Jackson Carroll) is omnipresent: either shadowing the protagonist Hermann or mirroring in burlesque mime what is being sung by the other characters. In part, this also seems to follow another recent trend (most notably practiced by Stefan Herheim in London’s Royal Opera House 2019 production of the Queen of Spades) of thrusting Tchaikovsky’s own repressed homosexuality onto the opera stage, as a dimension of Hermann’s doomed passion.
Amidst all of this hustle and bustle, the magnificent cast of mostly young Russian singers made for a vocally highly memorable evening. Tenor Oleg Dolgov brought a natural and unforced approach to the challenging role of Hermann. Baritone Alexander Kasyanov gave a vigorous interpretation of the roles of Tomsky and Zlagator, particularly in his animated Act I aria ‘Tri kartï’. Romanian baritone Serban Vasile (Yeletski) sang an ardently expressive ‘Ya vas lyublyu’ in Act II. The female leads were no less accomplished. Soprano Elena Bezgodkova was a poignant Lisa, both as an actress and as a singer, with a phrasing that was alternately flexible and intense. Mezzo-soprano Marie-Ange Todorovitch was an alluring Countess and Eva Zaïcik’s darkly-hued voice stood out in the roles of Pauline and Milovzor.
Conductor György G. Ráth gave a passionate reading of Tchaikovsky’s score, particularly in the numerous passages when he needed to react quickly to Hermann’s volatile rubato singing. The Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice provided warm and emotionally engaging playing throughout the opera, with notable contributions from the solo clarinet, oboe and cello. The combined choirs of the opera houses of Nice and Toulon (prepared by Giulio Magnanini and Christophe Bernollin respectively), and the children’s choir of the Opéra de Nice (Philippe Négrel) gave a stirring performance, occasionally marred by lack of coordination with the orchestra.
Direction musicale György G. Ráth
Mise en scène Olivier Py
Assistant mise en scène et chorégraphe Daniel Izzo
Décors et costumes Pierre-André Weitz
Assistant décors Pierre Lebon
Assistante costumes Nathalie Bègue
Lumières Bertrand Killy
Hermann Oleg Dolgov
Tomsky/ Zlagator Alexander Kasyanov
Yeletski Serban Vasile
Chekalinsky Artavazd Sargsyan
Sourine Nika Guliashvili
Tchaplitski/ Maître des cérémonies Christophe Poncet de Solages
Naroumov Guy Bonfiglio
La comtesse Marie-Ange Todorovitch
Lisa Elena Bezgodkova
Pauline/ Milovzor Eva Zaïcik
La gouvernante Nona Javakhidze
Prilepa et Masha Anne-Marie Calloni
Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice
Choeur de l’Opéra de Nice dirigé par Giulio Magnanini
Choeur de l’Opéra de Toulon dirigé par Christophe Bernollin
Choeur d’enfants de l’Opéra de Nice dirigé par Philippe Négrel