ENO concludes its latest season of work with The Queen of Spades, an opera that’s been dormant in their company for over 20 years.
David Alden’s staging of Tchaikovsky’s opera as the delirious hallucinations of Hermann (Peter Hoare) is strained. It’s a worn out format that’s translated quite unimaginatively in Gideon Davey’s design. Ever-present clock hands never tick, Hoare is tied to a hospital bed and the show is typically bookended with a visit to the asylum. A stunning cast, complete with a strong chorus, are thoroughly let down by a confusing production design, coupled with some awkward, stilted staging.
It’s an amalgamation of 1960s attire with ladies in bright floral dresses, Imperial Russian guard uniforms and short, sequinned skirts. The set is minimalistic, making a stab at a contemporary design. It’s infused with haunting statues of angels and large, out of place projections that feel like an afterthought, rather than an integral feature. Neither literal nor completely surreal, the design dangles somewhere in the middle and renders the production difficult to place. Of course, it’s all the in the mind of a madman so it doesn’t have to make sense. However, rather than explain the absurdity, it comes off as an excuse: a work so disjointed and lacking in cohesion it is salvaged only by its existence in the mind.
At least the performances are worth the ticket price. Dame Felicity Palmer outshines the rest of the cast with a chilling, mesmerising delivery of the aria ‘Je crains de lui parler la nuit’. Despite standing centre on the grand stage of the Coliseum, her presence is undeniable as she commands the attention of the auditorium throughout her number and the following, riveting confrontation scene between the Countess and Hermann.
Lisa (Giselle Allen) and Hermann’s scenes are energised, particularly throughout the second half, but they still manage to miss the mark slightly. Hoare and Allen attempt to play off each other with an animated chemistry but aren’t always in sync. When they do match up however, this energy, coupled with their notable vocal performances, reinvigorates the show.
An excruciatingly weak ending sees the cast limply throw playing cards across the stage. It gives the impression that Alden wants to drown the stage in cards, overwhelm us with a visual feast, but the lacklustre approach falls flat and distracts from Hermann’s dramatic final moments.
For all the hype around the strength and quality of ENO’s work, this production fails to excite.
The Queen of Spades is playing at The Coliseum until 2 July. For more information and tickets, see the English National Opera website. Photo by Donald Cooper.