Never think that opera is so rarified an entertainment that it doesn’t deal with the realities of life. It does. And Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, which has just opened at Covent Garden in a production by the “happening” Norwegian director Stefan Herheim, is a case in point.
Essentially this is a piece of Gothic horror fantasy complete with ghost. But at the same time it’s about a man destroyed by gambling, a persistent theme in classic Russian literature (the story here is by Pushkin): gambling as a self-annihilating, all-encompassing addiction.
In Tchaikovsky’s score you get a vivid sense of how addiction builds: the music is neurotic, feverish, obsessive, with an endlessly repeating motto theme that represents a secret trick for winning at the gaming tables. And at Covent Garden the neurosis is observed with visceral intensity under Antonio Pappano, who conducts an orchestra on top form, and a powerful cast led by Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko (an unlovely, raw but thrilling voice) as Herman the gambler, Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek (a Covent Garden favourite in heavy-hitting roles) as Liza the love object, and treasured veteran Felicity Palmer reprising one of her specialities, the Old Countess who holds the secret of the cards.
But the production is another matter. It looks good, it’s interesting, it’s well-presented. But it hijacks the original material with an imposed idea that Queen of Spades is a confessional piece in which Tchaikovsky speaks the otherwise unspeakable truths of his own life. Truths that have nothing to do with gambling, but concern the way he was driven to mental breakdown and perhaps (it remains unproven) suicide by social pressure to deny his homosexuality.
Now, it’s a fact that Tchaikovsky was gay, a fact that he suffered for it (as gay people still do in Russia), and hard to deny that his suffering fed into his music. But a specific connection between the composer’s suppressed sexuality and the narrative of Queen of Spades I don’t see. And Stefan Herheim’s efforts to prove the point are unconvincing, strive though he does by setting the entire action in Tchaikovsky’s apartment, with Tchaikovsky present as a character throughout – supposedly composing the piece as the audience experience it.
Everyone onstage is dressed in variants on Tchaikovsky’s 19th-century suit, to show they’re aspects of himself. And the male chorus – who are head-to-toe Tchaikovsky clones – come on with glasses of the poisoned water that it’s said he drank to end his life. We get the message loud and clear, but it remains a message without substance. Queen of Spades is not the story of Tchaikovsky, and a staging that insists it is can only be perverse. However nicely done.