Tchaikovsky trashed: Lyric audience dealt a losing hand by disastrous staging of “Queen of Spades”

Mon Feb 17, 2020 at 2:00 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Gherman (Brandon Jovanovich) shares a special moment with the skeleton of the Countess in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades at Lyric Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver

If necrophilia is your thing, Lyric Opera has a show for you.

With an exceptionally strong cast, the company’s first staging in two decades of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades (aka Pique Dame) should have been a runaway success. Instead—in what has unfortunately become the dominant leitmotif of the Anthony Freud era—a remarkable opera was ruined and a stellar lineup of singers undermined by yet another disastrous staging Saturday night at the Civic Opera House. 

The perpetrator once again was director Richard Jones who is to opera what the Wuhan coronavirus is to public health. This is the same spectacularly untalented twit who gave us last season’s vile staging of Handel’s Ariodante—then as now aided by his henchman, revival director Benjamin Davis.

And as with the Handel, despite moments of superb singing, Jones puts the scenario and Tchaikovsky’s music into the deep background in a grotesque revamp that made the nearly four-hour opening-night performance seem interminable.

The British director’s shtick is to seek out the darkest elements of every opera he touches and exaggerate them to massive proportions that distort the scale and intent of the original work—while adding a crusty layer of corrosive cynicism and, often, sexual excess. Once again this bleakly revisionist production told us much more than we want to know about Jones and little about the opera he is supposed to illuminate as stage director. 

As if Queen of Spades isn’t dark enough in its original form. Premiered in 1890, the ninth of Tchaikovsky’s ten operas—adapted from Pushkin’s short story—tells the tale of Gherman, a Wozzeck-like soldier and degenerate gambler. He becomes haunted by his vision of the beautiful high-born Lisa, who he soon learns is engaged to Prince Yeletsky. When Gherman’s friend Count Tomsky tells him that the Countess, Lisa’s grandmother, obtained her wealth and position due to mysterious gambling knowledge, Gherman becomes obsessed with discovering the secret of the “three cards.” Lisa, incomprehensibly, is attracted to the disturbed and intense Gherman and gives him her key, which he uses to gain access to the Countess’s room. He viciously confronts the old woman telling her he will murder her if she doesn’t disclose the secret. The Countess dies of fright, and when Lisa realizes Gherman’s motivation is not love for her but to obtain the secret, she drowns herself in despair. The ghost of the Countess appears to Gherman and reveals the three cards to him. Gherman wins on his first two cards yet his anticipated ace turns up as a Queen of Spades. Gherman kills himself, pleading for forgiveness from Lisa in his dying moments.

Hardly a light-hearted frolic but the compelling drama and obsessive characters of Tchaikovsky’s opera are here blown up by Jones into wildly over-the-top cartoons. Gherman is already one of the darkest figures in 19th century opera, but here Jones turns him into a spastic lunatic from the curtain. The talented Brandon Jovanovich is forced to overplay Gherman as a twitchy sociopath—staring silently into space, rubbing his legs, rocking back and forth and grinning maniacally for no reason.

Likewise Jones has Sondra Radvanovsky portray Lisa as a fearful, cringing passive neurotic, shoulders hunched and head down. It’s impossible for either of these gifted artists to create a credible, rounded character when this fatal Jones-ing reduces them to hopeless mental cases out of a 1940s asylum movie.

Elsewhere Jones shows his usual sneering contempt for the opera and source material by rewriting the action to fit his unremittingly nihilistic world view. John Macfarlane’s sets are a stark and dour gray-green, and the crucial light and shade needed to contrast Gherman’s dark obsessions against Russian upper-class society is simply jettisoned. No gleaming royal ball in Act 2 and instead of the happy party with friends in her salon Lisa and the chorus women lie around depressed and enervated in a dingy clapboard hut. Count Tomsky becomes a knife-carrying street thug. Rather than drowning herself Lisa commits suicide with a plastic bag. And the Ariodante puppets—which no one in the house can even see past the 15th row—are back to save money on dancers in the ballet sequences. 

Nor is Jones above trying to play offensive stereotypes for cheap laughs (the only kind he knows) because it’s all a big joke, don’t you see? The coldly forbidding aristocratic Countess is here tastelessly painted as a doddering geriatric whose infirmity is mocked by her servants. And in the final scene’s gambling den–for no reason at all–a berouged male dancer prances about in flamboyantly effeminate fashion. Something to offend everyone.

But Jones save his worst conceit for the top of Act 3. The crucial scene where the ghost of the Countess appears to Gherman in his room and tells him the secret should be the climax to the drama as Tchaikovsky intended. Instead Jones and company transform it into low Grand Guignol would-be comedy with an oversized skeleton puppet of the dead Countess appearing next to Gherman in his bed—which elicited laughter opening night rather than chills. After singing the secret to him Skeleton Countess puts her bony arm around Gherman as they warmly embrace and begin to stroke each other. The house lights mercifully went out right before Gherman placed an open-mouthed kiss on his emaciated benefactor.

Why Lyric Opera—and its board—continue to indulge Jones and allow this twisted little creep to destroy their productions is anyone’s guess.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Lisa and Brandon Jovanovich as Gherman in The Queen of Spades. Photo: Cory Weaver

Brandon Jovanovich is a greatly talented artist and proved vocally suited to the role of the haunted Gherman. He appeared to be pushing his booming Heldentenor in the early going with some strenuous moments in Act I.  But Jovanoich sang with more layered refinement and strength as the evening unfolded, bringing striking intensity to Gherman’s breakdown in the final scene. Jovanovich is a capable actor but in this revisionist staging, he was clearly forced to play Gherman as a demented village idiot with acting that was often embarrassingly over the top.

While one was grateful to hear Sondra Radvanovsky in a non-bel canto role for a change, the gifted soprano was likewise hobbled by the staging. She brought rich, expansive tone to Lisa’s two big arias, some tonal hardness at full volume apart. But her overall performance was damaged by the enforced dictum to play Gherman’s beloved as a repressed neurotic. Both Gherman and Lisa are such hopeless mental cases from the curtain there is nowhere for their characters to go.

The production fielded an admirable lineup in the large supporting cast although some were encouraged to ham it up outrageously.

Making her Lyric Opera debut at age 67, Jane Henschel showed a clear but rather fragile mezzo as the Countess. Too bad this fine veteran American singer had so little chance to make an impression with the Countess here turned into a tasteless stereotype of a decrepit elderly woman.

Doing a 180 from his acclaimed Don Giovanni last November, Lucas Meachem portrayed Prince Yeletsky, Lisa’s buttoned-down fiancee. In a production where singing often seemed like the least important element, Meachem delivered the finest vocal moment of the night with his ardent, beautifully expressive rendering of Yeletsky’s Act II aria to Lisa (“I love you beyond all measure”).

Instead of Gherman’s upper-class friend, Count Tomsky here is a strangely malevolent Mephistophelian figure constantly playing with a knife. Samuel Youn sang impressively with his capacious bass-baritone but his mugging often had little to do with the character or narrative. 

It was rich casting to have Elizabeth DeShong as Pauline, the deep-voiced mezzo blending gratefully with Radvanovsky in their Act I duet. Kyle van Schoonhoven and David Weigel were fitfully hyperactive yet vocally impressive as Chekalinski and Sourin, respectively.

Emily Pogorelc was a youthful, pure-voiced Masha, Jill Grove a hammy Governess. Michael Black’s Lyric Opera Chorus was superb with powerful and refined ensemble singing throughout.

Queen of Spades was the first opera Andrew Davis conducted at Lyric Opera in 2000 so the current revival marks a coming full circle of sorts for the company’s outgoing music director. 

Davis led the Lyric Opera in a rich and idiomatic performance of  Tchaikovsky’s dark-hued score, which in its varied expression and sensitivity was finer than anything seen on stage. A concert performance would have served the opera better than this calamitous production.

The Queen of Spades runs through March 1. lyricopera.org

Posted in Performances


15 Responses to “Tchaikovsky trashed: Lyric audience dealt a losing hand by disastrous staging of “Queen of Spades””

  1. Posted Feb 17, 2020 at 2:34 pm by GCMP

    Thank you for pointing out the true ghastliness of this staging.

  2. Posted Feb 17, 2020 at 3:13 pm by George

    Your review is spot on. For an opera whose whole story is about descent into madness, the characterization of Gherman was maddeningly static. During the first act (indeed, during the opening chorus) he was already portrayed as a deranged stalker (with many not-subtle rape-y gestures), so how could his fall from reason be dynamic, interesting, or elicit any audience reaction? There was no humanity in the staging or direction, and any sympathetic moments (such as Yeletsky’s aria, which as you noted was gloriously sung) were spitefully undercut by what was happening on stage.

    None of the staging served Tchaikovsky’s music, and I often found myself closing my eyes to clear the noise and enjoy the artistry of the stellar cast and musicians. From the back of the main floor, I noticed at least a quarter of the mostly full house leaving as soon as the final curtain fell, and I don’t suspect they all had a train to catch…

  3. Posted Feb 17, 2020 at 3:43 pm by Philip Kraus

    How I enjoy your richly detailed reviews. This disastrous trend in international and regional opera houses to allow directors to so fully distort theatrical works is truly unforgivable and depressing.

    What’s odd regarding Richard Jones is that he started out as a fairly persuasive director. I played the Mayor in his Jenufa production at Lyric back in 2000 (yikes, 20 years ago). It was a taut, remarkable production that did full justice to the work and was played in period. He followed that with a sick, revisionist Hansel and Gretel in which the witch had a kitchen filled with giant knives. I guess it’s been downhill from there.

    It seems to me that directors like this have absolutely no confidence in the original material. To hell with Pushkin and Tchaikovsky.They apparently didn’t know what they were doing.

    Thank you for exposing this artistic nihilism for what it is.

  4. Posted Feb 17, 2020 at 5:07 pm by William Mason

    Think what you will of the production, but referring to Richard Jones, a sweet gentle man whom I suspect you have never met, as a “twisted little creep ” is vicious and uncalled-for. Your comment about the downstairs men’s room attendant, not a part of the production, is unnecessary and mean.

  5. Posted Feb 17, 2020 at 5:28 pm by Anne-Marie

    Thank you for your honest review. No wonder the Tribune critic commented that it was better to close one’s eyes and listen to Tchaikovsky rather than get distracted by the staging. It seems that in Anthony Freud’s era the code word is British in order to get “carte blanche” for unbridled license to butcher the opera and the composer!

    Increasingly the vulgarity at the Lyric is becoming intolerable to a point where one would consider waiting for an opera to be reviewed rather than renewing one’s subscription. When the upcoming season was announced it was shocking to see that they are bringing back the cheap, sleazy production of Mozart’s Figaro directed by Barbara Gaines.

    My ticket is for this Wednesday and I specifically exchanged another opera for Queen of Spades because it hasn’t been back on stage for many years. I may leave after the intermission if it becomes unbearable. People should stand up and boo as they do at La Scala! Why does the Lyric Board give Freud so much power?

  6. Posted Feb 17, 2020 at 9:30 pm by Kendra

    One reason I love your detailed and thoughtful reviews is that you point out things I missed: for example, the insensitive and stereotypical portrayal of the Countess.As it was my first experience with Queen of Spades, I also wasn’t terribly critical of the characterization of Gherman, and you helped me see it from a different perspective. You put words to my negative reaction to Lisa, and echoed my own disgust with the skeleton scene, a staging that creeped me out for all the wrong reasons.

    What confuses me, however, is that at the same time that you rightly call out the director for resorting to stereotypes, you refer to the stalwart restroom attendant as a “nerd mall-police wannabe” and the director a “twisted little creep.” Just as the production detracts from the music with its inherent ridicule, so would your points be even stronger if you resisted the (somewhat understandable) urge to be unnecessarily cruel.

  7. Posted Feb 18, 2020 at 8:36 am by Matthew

    This production was commissioned by Welsh National Opera in which the director, Richard Jones created this thought-provoking production. I believe it to be relevant to this review that the General Director of Welsh National at that time was, yes, you guessed it: Anthony Freud!

    One way to alienate longtime fans of opera is to take a Grand Opera and make it anything but grand. I would have to believe the decisions of this General Director during his tenure have had a negative impact on ticket sales based on the trash I have seen on this stage.

    I will be spending my money on opera in Chicago at the Chicago Symphony from now on. Better conductor, better cast, and no trash.

  8. Posted Feb 19, 2020 at 8:58 am by Tom Pool

    Thanks for your lucid, stunning review. We have not yet seen the production but so fondly remember the previous one.

    What a shame! The previous Pique Dame was memorable.

  9. Posted Feb 19, 2020 at 10:22 pm by Irina Geister

    Thank you for this review. If a director wants to put on a modern opera, by all means do so and let the audience judge it for what it is.

    But to take Tchaikovsky and Pushkin works and make it a gross misrepresentation of their art is despicable. I grew up in Russia and I wanted to introduce my teenage daughters to the culture. What a shock it was to see this gross misrepresentation of the opera.

  10. Posted Feb 20, 2020 at 1:20 pm by Tim

    Beautiful, musically, Wednesday night. Such richness in the strings. Jovanavich was especially strong throughout.

    As a fan (and sometimes practitioner) of puppetry, I thought that the liveliness of construction and characterization in their use was notable and effective. (Admittedly, I could have done without the silly skeleton, in later scenes.) Though I was glad to have my binoculars, which were essential for perceiving much nuance from the rear of the main floor.

    And, at least, there wasn’t a 30 minute hold due to mechanical malfunctions on stage, as I recall from Opening Night 20 years ago.

    The substance of this work really ought to be brought forth more frequently. If we have to hear certain staples of the repertoire recycled increasingly often at Lyric, why can’t this be one of them? Perhaps, with Joffrey joining forces in coming years, a more thorough restaging and revival ought to be planned soon.

  11. Posted Feb 20, 2020 at 5:16 pm by Ellen Kruger

    3 hrs & 40 minutes with 2 half-hour intermissions & depressing scenery was too much.
    What has happened to beautiful costumes & scenery.

    Outstanding singing but for me & others it dragged. People next to me left at 1st intermission.
    I’ve been coming to Lyric for 50 years. Looked forward to coming.

    Again. Madama Butterfly.
    No color. Life is color.
    Please bring back the beauty.

    Totally agree with review.

  12. Posted Feb 20, 2020 at 9:23 pm by Aunt Hagatha

    You nailed it, Lawrence! We had the misfortune of seeing Ariodante and Queen of Spades. I hope the Lyric Opera takes note before they chase all their subscribers away. Keep advocating for the arts!

  13. Posted Feb 20, 2020 at 11:16 pm by Maria Gilliland

    Dear Sir Andrew,

    Thank you for your profound Conductor’s Note in the latest Lyric’s program devoted to “Queen of Spades”. And thank you for conducting the opera itself in a way of showcasing the depth and “empathetic worldliness” (Dostoyevsky) of a Russian in Tchaikovsky’s genius score.

    You write so movingly about your love for the Storm scene in Act One; I was puzzled by the opening scene where the choir praises walking on a such lovely sunny day but the décor shows nothing but bleakness, greyness and something like a giant black rat on the back of the curtain.

    The pastoral with the intermezzo you’ve mentioned in Act Two was freshly staged using puppets; but the “moral” was opposite to the author’s idea: love, not riches, should conquer. Tomsky with his flirtatious aria gets flirtatious, all of a sudden, with men, even Gherman himself.

    May all these updates and innovations bring in more and varied public to the opera and be on the conscience of the “revival” director.

    With respect and gratitude for your outstanding conducting of “Queen of Spades”,
    Lady Maria Gilliland.

  14. Posted Feb 21, 2020 at 3:46 pm by Eddie

    Cavalieria Rusticana was beyond stunning at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. On a different note. Relax. The Lyric Opera is trying different staging strategies and sometimes people dont like it. Shocking. If they stayed stale and conservative, people would complain. No need for a coup folks. Love all art.

  15. Posted Feb 22, 2020 at 9:04 am by Charles Capwell

    I have never read a review with which I agreed more in every detail than this one of Queen of Spades. Sets that looked decayed, cramped and mouldy, costumes that looked like rejects from Goodwill from an indeterminate age, direction that would make a bad high school production seem sublime, cartoonish characterizations. all these seemed to make the singers confused about how to realize their roles vocally. The best vocal performance as Johnson points out was that of Lucas Meacham who was inexplicably shoved off to the side of stage right so we could ignore him and concentrate on the awful staging.

    I had the misfortune of seeing Ariodante as well (not to worry, I don’t subscribe and attended both with the generosity of friends’ donated tickets.) I also had the opportunity (again at a friend’s gift) of seeing Le Nozze and being grossly affronted by Barbara Gaines’ utterly inane and insensitive staging–to make a risqué joke of the Countess’s “porgi amor” was simply unforgiveable. The most moving moment in the libretto, with Mozart’s exquisite musical expression of her psychological state was reduced to cynical satire.

    I am not inspired to renew my lapsed subscription anytime soon.

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