Salzburg Festival 2018 Review: The Queen of Spades

Hans Neuenfels & Mariss Jansons Lead Glorious Production of Tchaikovsky’s Opera

By Katerina Bezgachina

It is hard to imagine Russian music without Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Russian literature without poet Alexander Pushkin. Tchaikovsky’s opera “The Queen of Spades,” based on the eponymous novella by Pushkin, is one of the most important of the existing operas. Its beautiful and dark music leaves hardly any hope at the end, revealing a very fatalistic, and very Slavic, way of looking at life and death. The opera arrived at the Salzburg Festival this summer for a series of performances with new stage directions by Hans Neuenfels.

Throughout the whole production the director seemed to be playing a game of cards with the audience. He put different marks and references here and there. Now, it is up to you to pick up the card and interpret it. Most of the action took place against a dark background. The one act that is white and bright is the bedroom of the old Countess; ironically, this is where the darkest things happen.

A Tremendous Cast

American tenor Brandon Jovanovich, who sang his first Hermann in Salzburg, has grasped this fatalism and created a passionate portrait of a foreigner trapped in the obsessive love and gambling craze. His absent-minded and lost figure in the red uniform drew our attention from the first chords of his opening aria about love for a beautiful stranger “I do not even know her name and may never know it” to his final brindisi “What is our life? A game!”  Even his slight accent, when singing in Russian, contributed to building a realistic character, as Hermann was of German descent. And to the end of the opera, we wondered about a true object of his passion: a woman or simply money?

Later, we meet his antagonist, Lisa’s bridegroom Prince Yeletsky, sung by baritone Igor Golovatenko. His opposition to Hermann is revealed through a beautiful duet, when Yeletsky talks about “Happy day, I bless you!” and Hermann echoes with “Wretched day, I curse you.” As the two delivered their parts, the stage rotated, symbolizing the changing and fleeing nature of time and luck. Golovatenko brings statue and royal manners to his Prince. Tchaikovsky has given this character the most beautiful lines in the entire opera, when Yeletsky talks to Lisa about his love at the masked ball, “I love you, love you beyond all measure,” and offers her bliss of the family idyll. However, the girl chooses a tenor, and death at the end.

The three gambling friends, Surin, bass Stanislav Trofimov, Chekalinsky, tenor Alexander Kravets, and Count Tomsky, baritone Vladislav Sulimsky, appeared with their sticks and fur coats almost like the three wicked witches from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” or triple Rasputin, a mysterious man who had gained considerable influence over the last Russian tzar and his wife. They cast their spell and led Hermann into temptation with the story about “Three cards, three cards, three cards!” Count Tomsky shares a secret of the old Countess, “Once in Versailles,” who knows a winning card combination. The trio masterfully delivered their parts creating a beautiful interplay through a combination of all male voices. 

A Sweet Romantic

Russian soprano Evgenia Muraveva took on the role of Lisa. She enacted a sweet romantic female character who is lost and tormented. A girl who wants to get out of the routine of her life and is mysteriously drawn to something that she does not understand. Muraveva showed this darker and deeper female nature in her arioso in the bedroom, “What am I crying for, what is it?” She wanted to experience her girlhood dreams of great and passionate love but ends up a victim of her dreams and circumstances. Her strongest performance came in the final arioso “I am worn out by grief” and a following duet with Hermann. It culminated in the overpowering death scene as Lisa jumps into the river and pulls the cover from the figure of fate. But there is nothing. Only emptiness. 

The Old Countess is the only colorful character apart from Hermann, the rest appear as black and white clad figures. Mezzo soprano Hanna Schwarz offered a strong and untraditional rendition of this role. There was no usual pomp and grandiosity in her Countess. She is more quiet and still coquettish, willing to seduce young men like an aged sex doll. And her every appearance on stage captured our attention, in a similar way as Jovanovich’s Hermann. Her aria from Grétry’s opera Richard Coeur-de-Lion, as she remembers her youth in Paris and muses on how life has changed since then, was more hushed and subdued. Yet, it was captivating. At the same time, the scene when the countess undresses and pulls off her wig to reveal her boldness did not shock or frighten as the scene in the old Vienna State Opera production, when Martha Mödl sang the old Countess to celebrate her 80th birthday.

Mariss Jansons led the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra with a very convincing interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s opera. Every small detail, every small shade of emotion was revealed through music. This music is sublime, yet at the end, it scares you with coldness. It is like time itself that claims the upper hand over everything and everyone. 


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