It’s all in the cards: A misplayed hand in Lyric’s ‘Queen of Spades’

Brandon Jovanovich as Gherman (far right) and the Lyric Opera Chorus in Tchaikovsky's "The Queen of Spades" at Lyric Opera. 

A stream of perplexed and dismayed patrons filed out of the Lyric Opera House last Saturday, after Lyric unveiled a new-to-Chicago production of Tchaikovsky’s “Pikovaya dama” (“The Queen of Spades”). Pushkin’s short story, on which the opera is based, is about greed. The composer’s brother Modest altered the story for his libretto, merging avarice and love into a joint obsession and adding additional dead bodies.

The Lyric production goes further, transforming the story into a surreal nightmare, one of the features of which is that you have no idea just what is happening or why. While Dostoyevsky deemed Pushkin’s story “the pinnacle of the art of the fantastic,” this rendering at Lyric represents the depths revisionists will go to force an opera into the Procrustean bed of the director’s own personal vision, in spite of what the opera’s music and libretto themselves express.

“The Queen of Spades” focuses on Gherman, a poor soldier who incessantly watches others gamble at cards but does not participate. From afar he falls in love with Lisa, the granddaughter of a countess, and he is crushed when he learns she is to marry Prince Yeletsky. Fellow soldier Tomsky tells Gherman that the countess’s wealth comes from her knowledge of the three winning cards, so when he meets Lisa, Gherman decides he must win the gambling secret as well as the woman. He accosts the countess late at night in an effort to force her to reveal her winning card strategem but instead frightens her to death. He later betrays Lisa as well, but learns the secret from the ghost of the countess and the opera ends with Gherman taking his own life when what should be his winning card instead turns out the Queen of Spades.

This production was originally directed 20 years ago at the Welsh National Opera by Richard Jones, with Benjamin Davis serving as Lyric’s revival director. The Jones-Davis conception of the opera is a confusing one, where Gherman’s obsessions are used as an excuse for all sorts of bizarre behavior. The staging is dark and murky throughout, even as the chorus, for example, sings of the marvelous sunshine. The opera is meant to be set in the second half of the 18th century, but Jones-Davis give us instead some unidentified location in the 1930s despite people singing of aristocrats and Catherine the Great. There is nothing Russian about this production except the language of the singing.

Tomsky swans around with no shirt but is strangely outfitted with a menacing knife. He has a creepy, sexualized encounter with a man sporting bright red lipstick and ladies pumps. The park is as gray and dank as a parking garage and party-goers are transformed into twitching zombies. Alone in her bed, Lisa engages in crude sexual acrobatics. Like last year’s “Ariodante,” (also a Richard Jones concept opera), in a scene where there might have been dancing, puppets are plopped onto a table. They are less than two feet tall, so difficult to see even if you are seated near the stage, and are manipulated by a team of puppeteers who often block one’s line of sight with their bodies, further obscuring what the puppets are up to. When the table show is over, one of the characters plants a passionate kiss on a puppet, but only after ripping the wig off of it.

The opera as presented is unrelentingly dark and ugly and engages in various acts of operatic vandalism. When Yeletsky delivers the glorious love song “Ya vas lyublyu,” to his fiancée Lisa, Gherman lurks in the background making childish, flailing gestures to her. There is more than one moment of uncomfortable laughter from the audience as the strange doings unfold. And some events are impossibly opaque. The countess has her back to us in an enormous bathtub during her death scene, and without knowing the story, you could be in doubt as to what happened. It is certainly a demise without any drama. Jones-Davis found ways to obscure the story and its meaning with their unexplained assaults on the basic narrative.

Musically, there is much good in this “Queen of Spades.” Andrew Davis leads the orchestra in a performance with grace and lush romanticism, making the dimly lit vision on stage seem all wrong. The Lyric Opera Chorus is magnificent, with robust and vibrant singing. And the principals are all able, some even very strong indeed. Yet Sondra Radvanovsky (Lisa), Brandon Jovanovich (Gherman), Lucas Meachem (Yeletsky), Samuel Youn (Tomsky), and Jane Henschel (the countess) cannot undo the visuals. This is the first time in a lifetime of opera-going that I found the shenanigans of the staging so unappealing, so perplexing, so at odds with the music and the text projected above the stage, that they were completely over-weighted by the staging concept. In this production, it’s the stage that does the robbing.

Lyric audiences are generous, and the music-makers were rewarded with appreciative applause. But when the creative team, led by the director, took their bows, the applause level fell significantly, and the opening night audience had the final word.

“The Queen of Spades” slogs along over three hours and 45 minutes, so it is a very long time to sit stewing in your own confusion. Near the end of the opera, Lisa ends it all by putting a plastic bag over her head. There was more than once when I wished I had a something over my head that would keep me from seeing anything further.

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