Opera Holland Park is London’s Glyndebourne and after 21 years of support from Kensington and Chelsea council, it’s just become a new independent charity. A coming of age that’s been marked with a season that’s been full of confidence, nowhere more evident than in its final operatic offering, Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades.
It features one of its starriest casts, too. The magnificent Rosalind Plowright plays the countess “the Queen of Spades” and is not only in great voice but on great acting form. Bent over her two sticks, bustled and black bombazined, she resembles a poisonous spider ready to pounce. She steals all her scenes – even when she’s dead. At the other end of her career (already pretty meteoric), Natalya Romaniw (born in Wales with a Ukrainian father) as her grand-daughter Lisa took a little time to get going but soared in the later scenes and the duets with Peter Wedd as Herman, the hero.
It’s hard to see Herman as a hero, though Tchaikovsky certainly did. Herman is obsessive, delusional, murderous and, finally, mad. The only decent honest character is Prince Yeletsky (Grant Doyle, deservedly cheered in his final heartfelt duet with Lisa) but for all his charm, wit and money he is rejected by his fiancée Lisa in favour of Herman. Talk about amour fou, Lisa’s infatuation has nothing on Herman’s, though. His first appearance has him obsessing to his fellow army officers about his grand passion – but at this point he has never met Lisa. In fact, he doesn’t even know her name.
Not surprisingly, his fellow officers (Richard Burkhard, Aled Hall, Simon Wilding) see him as an oddity but don’t realise quite how odd till the very end. In the meantime, he’s the butt of their jokes, in particular the one about the “tri karti” – the three cards that will always win the game. Count Tomsky (Burkhard) tells the story. A secret run of cards was given to the Countess in her youth when she was a celebrated beauty in Paris. Since then she has shared it only with her husband and younger lover (both long dead) because, to share it with a third, would bring about her own death. Herman believes every word and is determined to find the formula, make a fortune and claim Lisa as his own.
However, this is Tchaikovsky (based on a much-altered story by Pushkin) so the course of true love is unlikely to run smooth. At a ball, Lisa agrees to meet Herman and gives him the key that will open the door to her room – via the Countess’s. He hides in the Countess’s room and finds himself strangely drawn to her – the Countess and Lisa are portrayed as the positive and negative of the same image, even down to identical dresses in black and white. He caresses the bronze image of the Countess in her heyday – the Venus of Moscow so celebrated in Paris. Then hearing her return from the ball he hides while the countess, preparing with her maids for bed, sings of her past beauty and triumphs.
Finally alone, she falls asleep until Herman appears demanding to know her secret. The Countess is terrified and, when Herman threatens her with a pistol, she dies of shock. Lisa discovers him lamenting not the death – but the fact that he still doesn’t know the formula. But soon he does. Herman has been hearing voices for some time. He sees multiple spectres of the Countess come to haunt him. Then finally the real ghost arrives to tell him the secret – the three, the seven, the ace. Increasingly dishevelled and incoherent (and with an unnerving resemblance to Jeremy Corbyn – why did they give him that beard?), he meets Lisa but tells her he cannot elope until he has won at cards. Realising he is a murderer – and deranged – Lisa commits suicide.
Herman bursts in on his fellow officers and to their amazement – Herman has always been too mean to play in the past – insists on playing cards. He puts down a huge bet on the turn of one card. It’s a three and he wins. He repeats this with the seven. His friends try to persuade him to quit while he’s ahead but by this time his madness is clear even to them and they’re powerless in the face of his demands for a third card. He declares it’s an ace but it is, of course, the queen of spades and the countess has played her final trick. There is nothing left for him but suicide, too.
This is a commanding performance from Peter Wedd who moves from a somewhat withdrawn army officer through torment to madness during the course of the evening. The production echoes this sense of doom – throughout there is foreboding, a sense of a chaos that could explode at any moment. In the opening scene, the first day of spring ends in a ferocious storm – all of the principal characters voice their fears in its wake. Lisa and Herman are tormented by an impossible love, the Prince finds his fiancée aloof and cold. Later Lisa’s greatest friend, Polina (Laura Woods in superb voice), entertains at the engagement party first with appropriately happy songs – but somehow finds herself singing of death and the grave. Later in the party when the servants start a folk dance and the young ladies join in they are chastised by the fierce governess (Laura Zigmantaite).
There are few carefree moments for any of the characters. In the second half, everyone on stage is in black and the chorus comes into its own with some exceptional singing in the masked ball (accompanied by a grotesque dance when the Empress is announced), at the funeral of the countess and in the final gambling scene accompanied by some spirited Russian dancing. Towards the end, Herman and the countess perform an eerie dance, locked together in their dreams and obsessions – each the other’s demon. It’s a magnificent moment in an intense and inspired production.
The Queen of Spades at Opera Holland Park until 13th August 2016. For more information and tickets please visit the website.