Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: The Queen of Spades; Cosi Fan Tutte

Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: The Queen of Spades; Cosi Fan Tutte

Article excerpt

The Queen of Spades

ENO, in rep until 2 July

Così fan tutte

Garsington Opera, in rep until 11 July

The opera director David Alden has never been one to tread the straight and narrow. Something kinky would emerge, I'm sure, even if he directed the Queen's televised Christmas message. So matching him up at English National Opera with the madness, obsessions and phantasmagoria of Tchaikovsky's whirring and troubling The Queen of Spades was simply asking for trouble. The Alden fingerprints quickly emerge. We're in several periods at the same time: Pushkin's Imperial Russia, yes, but also Stalin's ossified Soviet Union, plus splashes of the frivolous 1920s and 60s and a snatch of the 18th century. Fashions and hemlines keep darting around: Red Army uniforms, thigh-crawling cocktail numbers, hookers' sleaze, and, for Felicity Palmer's Countess, what might be Miss Havisham's nightdress. There is cross-dressing, of course, an unnecessary gang rape, a far from innocent intermezzo pastorale, and a loopy irruption of animal heads, lifted, it seems, from a 'furry fandom' subculture of which I was blissfully ignorant before.

If only you could grab this production by the neck and shake out its silly clutter. Even at their fussiest and nuttiest, the fancies of Alden and his bold designer Gideon Davey (lots of sliding panels, dowdy walls and stacked chairs) never induce utter boredom. But when the stage has enough air and the anguish of Tchaikovsky's drama takes hold, the show often throbs with unusual power. All sideshows stop for the Countess's memory-lane excursion 'Je crains de lui parler la nuit' -- unforgettable here, particularly in its whispered reprise as Palmer stands lonely and frail as a crumbling leaf. This deeply felt and lived-in performance would make a ticket worthwhile on its own. After early hiccups on opening night, Peter Hoare's querulous brand of tenor came into its own as Hermann's wits crumbled scene by scene. There's characterful work, too, from Nicholas Pallesen's rotund-toned Yeletsky, Gregory Dahl's cynical Tomsky, and, once you discount her irksome costumes, the chameleonic Pauline of Catherine Young.

Admittedly, there's a distance surrounding Giselle Allen's Lisa that helps make her obsessive love for Hermann share the temperature of a fishmonger's slab. But any shortfall in passion there should be balanced against the ferocious force of the reinvigorated ENO chorus and the orchestra's sheer gusto and sheen. For that, above all, we must cheer conductor Edward Gardner. …

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