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Tchaikovsky, The Queen of Spades: Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Christian Badea. Stockholm Royal Opera, 16.5.2009. Premiere (GF)

Sets and Costumes: Hartmut Schörghofer
Lighting: Hans-Åke Sjöquist
Choreography: Edvald Smirnov
Direction: Dmitri Bertman

Herman – Stefan Dahlberg
Count Tomsky – Marcus Jupither
Prince Yeletsky – Jesper Taube
Chekalinsky – Ulrik Qvale
Surin – Lennart Forsén
Chaplitsky – Niköas Björling Rygert
Narumov – Michael Schmidberger
Countess – Ingrid Tobiasson
Lisa – Hillevi Martinpelto
Pauline – Karolina Blixt
Governess – Marianne Eklöf
Masha – Annica Nilsson
Chloë – Hedvig Jalhed
Major-Domo – Niklas Björling Rygert

Pupils from Adolf Fredriks Music Classes, The Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Christian Badea


The Queen of Spades is a grand opera in every respect and musically it has claims to be the best of Tchaikovsky’s twelve operas. The orchestral writing is grandiose as well as emotional – less sentimental than Eugene Onegin – the choruses are magnificent and there is grateful music for the soloists. But it is also an unwieldy work in several ways. Stylistically the composer is influences by Russian folk song but also by Mozart’s classicism – so much in fact that there is a direct quotation of Papageno’s Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen from Die Zauberflöte in the ‘opera within the opera’ in the second act ball scene, which throughout is written in an 18th century idiom. It is charmingly done and fully in line with the Tchaikovsky brothers’ idea to transport the action backwards to that period.

The action in itself is rather thin, and spread out over around three hours’ playing time the dramatic tempo becomes slow. In the previous production of The Queen of Spades in Stockholm, almost 35 years ago, the director shunned the chorus altogether and cut other scenes as well in order to condense the action. Dramaturgically this seems reasonable but it also means that some of the best music was lost in the process. Presumably the director then hailed Ingmar Bergman’s principle ‘kill your darlings’.

Dmitri Bertman, who also directed Stockholm’s Eugene Onegin a few years ago, opts for the complete score but it seems that he doesn’t trust the drama to speak for itself. Instead he and choreographer Edvald Smirnov invests the play with so much movement and hyperactivity that the central conflict – Herman’s and Lisa’s love that is spoilt through Herman’s obsession with gambling – is partly overshadowed by the nervous multiplicity of gestures, poses, ticks and all sorts of side-actions that draw attention to themselves without essentially being motivated by the drama. They don’t add anything significantly that brings a deeper insight to the onlookers. No doubt all this is intended to mirror Herman’s state of mind but this is quite obvious anyway. Add to this the card-table being incessantly lowered and raised, the cut-glass chandelier coming down and disappearing again like a yo-yo.

A lot of these, subsidiary themes, if you like, are most amusing and cleverly executed and irrespective of the tragic story one needs a good laugh. The Daphnis and Chloë scene with Marcus Jupither’s graceful ballet pantomime is highly entertaining and the big choral scenes with a throng of people invading the stage render tsarist grandiloquence to the proceedings. Sets and costumes are beautifully darkish.

Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality was no secret even during his lifetime and the official Russian attitude towards sexual divergence today is still unrelenting, exemplified through the action from riot police against the pride festival in Moscow, reported on this weekend. At the Royal Opera director Bertman does his share by intimating a lesbian relation between Lisa and her friend Pauline and conductor Christian Badea underlines the passion through the unabashedly sensual sounds from the strings. On the whole he draws glowingly impassioned playing from the Royal Orchestra and the chorus are in glorious form. At the most bombastic moments, primarily in the final scene at the card-table, the sound is so overwhelming that it more or less drenches Stefan Dahlberg.

Up till then he has impressed greatly in the testing role, one of the most demanding in the entire opera literature. Dahlberg is basically a lyric tenor, who at the beginning of his career sang a lot of Mozart – his debut in 1982 was as Tamino in Die Zauberflöte – but gradually moved to somewhat heavier roles. He doesn’t have the metallic ring to ride a Tchaikovskian orchestra at full flight but he has preserved his voice in wonderful shape and every other aspect of his reading of the role is excellently fulfilled. Hillevi Martinpelto adds another highly successful interpretation to her long list of roles at the Royal Opera. Her Lisa is sensitive and vulnerable. Marcus Jupither’s Tomsky is tremendously impressive, vocally as well as visually. His voluminous baritone seemingly has no limits and few present-day singers can muster his intensity. By his side the aristocratic Jesper Taube tends to pale but Yeletsky is an altogether more recessed character. His aria in the second act, presumably the best known number from this opera, was beautifully sung on the premiere but with an unfortunate widening of vibrato that I haven’t heard before.

The Countess is a central role though she hasn’t got very much to sing. Ingrid Tobiasson, like Stefan Dahlberg retired since a couple of years, has superb stage presence and her voice is still in fine fettle. Her restrained aria, sung in a bathtub, is a gripping portrait of the ageing woman. In other roles the reliable Lennart Forsén is a sonorous Surin and the young mezzo-soprano Karolina Blixt, who made her Royal Opera debut on the opening night, is a charismatic Pauline. Hedvid Jalhed, still a student at the University College of Opera is a glittering Chloë.

The vocal and orchestral standards at the Royal Opera are, in other words, on the excellent high level that we have got used to during the 2000s. The direction may be quirky and the story a bit longwinded but for this the composer and his librettist brother are partly to blame. In the last resort it is still the positive aspects that are to the fore.

Göran Forsling

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