Before a note has sounded, The Queen of Spades divides connoisseurs into two camps: those who find its most sharply drawn characters so unsympathetic that there is no one on stage to identify with; and those who, while acknowledging the nihilistic timbre of the Pushkin-based plot, find this opera truer to what we know of Tchaikovsky – his obsessions and insecurities – than any other he wrote. I place myself in the former camp.
The Queen of Spades is not “popular” Tchaikovsky – it lacks the standout arias and human vulnerabilities of Onegin – and yet in this Grange Park incarnation, first seen in 2012 and now vividly revived by its original director, Antony McDonald, it comes across with an honesty and claustrophobic intensity that suck both camps into its dramatic grip. Even without underlining the nightmarish quality in Tchaikovsky’s score, as most modern productions do, this one leaves us engrossed and stunned in equal measure.
Much of the credit goes to McDonald, a director-designer inexplicably overlooked by the main London companies. His ingenious turntable set and late 19th-century costumes capture the atmosphere of imperial St Petersburg as subtly as his orchestration of the ensembles, which create a sense of scale in a small space. Then, in the key confrontations, he closes down that space in a way that gives the outsize emotions expressed in the music an explosive force. You almost expect the walls of Grange Park’s perfect little theatre to crumble under the impact, an impression underlined in a negative way by the unremitting loudness, bordering on the noisy, of Gianluca Marciano’s interpretation with the otherwise excellent Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.
It’s a pity McDonald goes along with the decision to axe the opera’s elaborate rococo intermezzo, but he has sacrificed nothing in his close-focus direction of the principals. Carl Tanner’s Herman benefits most: his big presence is matched by an almost chandelier-shattering vocal performance. Anne-Marie Owens captures enough of the Countess’s glamorous past to make us believe in her fading grandeur. Giselle Allen is the handsome Lisa, Stephen Gadd a dignified Yeletsky, surrounded by strong comprimarios and an excellent chorus. Whether or not you believe The Queen of Spades is Tchaikovsky at his best, it finds Grange Park Opera near its peak.