In the dicey business of bringing historic opera to contemporary audiences, Lyric Opera’s current production of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky‘s The Queen of Spades is a winner. Three hours and 45 minutes long? Sung in Russian? No problem; deal me in. This exploration of obsession is compulsively watchable.
Said to have been composed in a 44-day frenzy, the opera is based on an Alexander Pushkin story about an obsessive gambler—a subject Pushkin knew firsthand. The opera (with a libretto by Modest Tchaikovsky, the composer’s brother), expanding on this theme, is about obsessive ideation that fixes on romance as well as gambling, before moving on to guilt.
The central character, Gherman (tenor Brandon Jovanovich), is hell-bent on possessing both Lisa (soprano Sondra Radvanovsky), a woman he’s fallen in love with at first sight, and a dangerous secret her grandmother happens to possess that will allow him to win at cards. Lisa’s a stretch for this impoverished outsider—she’s engaged to marry a prince (baritone Lucas Meachem). Against the odds, Gherman succeeds in winning her heart, but—and this is the crux of the story—driven as he is, he can’t stop there. He persists in his quest for her grandmother’s secret, leading to a devastating final loss.
This is psychodrama powered by the sweep and emotional acuity of Tchaikovsky’s Russian romantic score. The 20-year-old production, originally directed by Richard Jones, with sets and costumes by John Macfarlane (directed here by Benjamin Davis), moves the action up to the tense grey 1930s. It makes use of puppets, graveyard humor, and surreal shifts in perspective to weave an increasingly claustrophobic and ominous spell. Radvanovsky and Jovanovich powerfully, wrenchingly, give voice to their characters, and everyone in the huge cast—including the Lyric Opera Chorus and members of the Chicago Children’s Choir—plays up to their game.
Musically, it’s an embarrassment of riches, starting with the trio of men who launch the action: tenor Kyle van Schoonhoven and bass-baritone David Weigel as Gherman’s associates, and bass-baritone Samuel Youn—Alberich in Lyric’s Ring—in another neatly executed nasty turn as Gherman’s pernicious friend Count Tomsky. Then there’s a trio of mighty mezzo sopranos: Jill Grove as a governess; Elizabeth DeShong as Lisa’s friend Pauline; and spot-on veteran Jane Henschel making her Lyric debut as Lisa’s grandmother, the Countess, once known as the Venus of Moscow.
Also, of course, the Lyric Opera Orchestra. A more traditional Queen of Spades was the first opera Andrew Davis conducted as Lyric’s music director. As he heads into his final season in that job (he’ll depart in 2021), this production is an apropos bookend to his 20-year tenure. v