‘Queen Of Spades’ Gets Reshuffled As Stark, Cool Drama

Hans Neuenfels’ new production of ‘The Queen of Spades’ is stark and at times unemotional. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich is Hermann, and soprano Evgenia Muraveva is Liza. (© Salzburger Festspiele / Ruth Walz)
By Rebecca Schmid

SALZBURG – The summer festival here is enjoying a streak of bold opera programming under artistic director Markus Hinterhäuser, who since taking over last summer has been compared to the scandal-friendly Gerard Mortier. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the director Hans Neuenfels – whose controversial re-writing of Strauss’ Die Fledermaus took the stage in 2001, Mortier’s last season – returned this year after a considerable absence to direct a Tchaikovsky opera for the first time. And Hinterhäuser also encouraged the visual artist-director Jan Lauwers to take on his first opera production, Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea.

Hanna Schwarz is the Countess in ‘The Queen of Spades.’

But either the now-77-year-old Neuenfels has mellowed or his recent falling-out with Christoph von Dohnányi at the Berlin State Opera made an impression. Neuenfels’ new production of The Queen of Spades – seen at the second performance on Aug.10 in the Großes Festspielhaus – is stark and at times unemotional. Lightly ironic costumes by Reinhard von der Thannen for both soloists and chorus (the Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus) add a touch of fantasy, while sets and direction rarely capture the fine line between realism and dream that is so crucial to the storyline.

The veteran conductor Mariss Jansons, who won London’s International Opera Award last year for this very work in a recording with the Bavarian State Opera, led the Vienna Philharmonic in a performance that should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that the opera is a masterpiece on the same level with Eugen Onegin. The main character of Hermann – who falls in love with the granddaughter of a Countess, only to go mad after learning the secret combination of winning cards from her ghost – embodies what may be an autobiographical portrait of Tchaikovsky’s torture as a closeted homosexual.

Reinhard von der Thannen designed lightly ironic costumes for ‘The Queen of Spades.’

When Hermann kills himself in public at a gaming house in St. Petersburg, he reveals the incompatibility of true love and societal duty while the Countess represents a bygone era of aristocratic privilege. In the end, no one wins. Even her granddaughter Lisa takes her life upon realizing that Hermann has lost his mind. But Tchaikovsky’s searing melodies and refined orchestration allow us to sympathize with all the characters.

The cast under Jansons is uniformly excellent, capturing the score’s emotional intensity without ever pushing the music into the realm of kitsch. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich, the only American in a cast of mostly Russian natives, conveyed Hermann’s fervor and desperation but also his tenderness. Soprano Evgenia Muraveva captured a sense of stoic torment with sensitive dynamic shading and a timbre that was at once rich and transparent.

The Count Tomski of baritone Vladislav Sulimsky was a warm, reassuring presence; the Countess of mezzo-soprano Hanna Schwarz the incarnation of subdued nostalgia. The baritone Igor Golovatenko brought smooth, beautiful phrasing and noble sentiment to the role of Prince Yeletsky, who loses Lisa’s love to Hermann. The Vienna Philharmonic was also a star in its own right, from outbreaks of rich strings that spoke of unbearable passion to lighter, folk-like passages that evoked the 18th-century setting in St. Petersburg.

Kate Lindsey was a convincing Nero, Sonya Yoncheva a fearlessly suggestive Poppea.
(© Salzburger Festspiele / Maarten Vanden Abeele)

Not unlike this Queen of Spades, the new staging of Poppea brings together a specialized conductor, Les Arts Florissants founder William Christie who has a long history with Monteverdi, and a director on new terrain. As seen at the premiere on Aug. 12 at the Haus für Mozart, the results are by turns captivating and senseless.

Lauwers, who presides over direction, sets and choreography, sought to connect the physicality of both singers and dancers by rehearsing them together and allowing for improvisation. Yet the movement onstage is often so disconnected from the contours of the score that the bodies of the Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance distract more than they add to the action. Most perplexing is the presence of a whirling dervish center stage, which Lauwers considers a representation of “real time.”

Renato Dolcini (right) as Seneca, with members of Les Arts Florissants.

The director’s contention that “history is a lie” appears to be a contradiction since Monteverdi reveals history as the ultimate truth by holding a mirror to our eyes through the ruthless manipulations of the Roman emperor Nero, his mistress Poppea, and the other scheming characters. The cast managed to convey all this in the music so that the production redeemed itself through the freedom it allows the singers.

Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, singing Monteverdi for the first time, in particular took risks with extremes of expression as Nero – breaking out into an almost manic declamation in the final act – but her smoky timbre and ardor made for a convincing performance. Soprano Sonya Yoncheva was fearlessly if not at times tastelessly suggestive as the seductress Poppea; her rich timbre made it believable that Poppea is “Venus on earth,” as the god Amor sings.

From the deliciously ironic performance of veteran countertenor Dominique Visse as Poppea’s nurse, Arnalta, to the fresh charisma of the young mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre as Amor/Valletto, to the steadfast delivery of baritone Renato Dolcini as Seneca – the only moral character in the opera – the musical standards were what one would expect from this Mt. Olympus of summer festivals. But even though Lauwers’ production is a worthwhile experiment, it needs some fine-tuning.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional legacy of Kurt Weill.