It is frightening how Tchaikovsky’s music can look inside the mind. The central characters in his operas are laid out before us like patients on a psychiatrist’s couch, none more devastatingly than poor Gherman in The Queen of Spades, the army officer addicted to a hopeless love and the fatal lure of gambling.
Release its pent-up intensity and this is the most powerful of all Tchaikovsky’s operas. To succeed, it needs a production that is able to relate the turmoil in Gherman’s mind to the real events going on around him, and a tenor with vocal and histrionic resources that go well beyond the average.
This revival of Francesca Zambello’s production gets a bit more than halfway there. The opening scenes start out innocuously enough in a rococo dream world of pastel tints and silly wigs but, as Gherman’s mental state deteriorates, the staging also goes awry. Yes, we can all play Freud and see that the huge pile of snow and the stage boxes at a slant are symbols of a mind that is askew, but why these bizarre symbols in particular?
Fortunately, Vladimir Galouzine’s portrayal of Gherman is so gripping that nobody need be bothered to look elsewhere. Peering out quizzically through his spectacles, like the twin brother of Pierre from War and Peace, he has the huge vocal heft, the stamina and an intensity that seems to burn from within: in short, he has mastered the role completely.
His Gherman was rightly dominating – although Gerald Finley as Yeletsky sang his aria so beautifully that he provided a counterweight in the world of sanity. Mlada Khudoley’s Lisa sent out appealing signs of youth and innocence, although her voice became shrill as she tired towards the end. Solid performances came from Vassily Gerello’s Tomsky and Enkelejda Shkosa’s generously sung Paulina, and rather more than that from the Countess of Larissa Diadkova, who has twice as much voice as most singers of the role. Throw in good-quality playing from the orchestra and assertive conducting from Semyon Bychkov, and this is a revival of mostly sane and sturdy values, sufficient to throw Galouzine’s powerfully unhinged Gherman into relief.
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