Norwegian director Stefan Herheim’s international career reached its apogee with a production of Parsifal at Bayreuth (2008) that achieved a number of goals – not all of them purely artistic.
A wide-ranging history of the festival founded by Richard Wagner himself, it openly acknowledged the period in Bayreuth’s history when it was the regular haunt of Adolf Hitler and run by his number one fan Winifred Wagner, who would be banned from the festival after the war.
Since then the director has continued to work at the highest level, though his productions for UK companies thus far have come nowhere near the imaginative heights of his Bayreuth triumph.
Instead of dealing with the altogether larger subject of the 13th-century occupation and revolt that inspired the piece, for instance, his Sicilian Vespers for the Royal Opera was set in the rehearsal rooms of the Paris Opera around 1855, when Verdi’s work was premiered there.
Last year his Pelleas et Melisande at Glyndebourne took place in a mock-up of a room at the country-house itself. It has started to look as if Herheim has become stuck in a repetitive and self-limiting groove.
First seen in Amsterdam in 2016, his Queen of Spades is all about Tchaikovsky. A named character in the cast-list, he’s played by the Bulgarian baritone who sings Prince Yeletsky, the magnificent Vladimir Stoyanov, who provides what is easily the most consistent vocal performance of the evening.
But of course he has nothing to sing as the opera’s composer, who instead moves the other characters around, instigating dramatic situations, as well as incessantly either playing the piano, scribbling notes on sheets of manuscript paper, or conducting. There is altogether far too much of him – or rather them, because at various points the stage is swamped by an entire chorus of Tchaikovsky lookalikes.
Already a cliché of operatic staging, this device makes for a tedious evening while simultaneously side-lining the opera’s plot and central characters, who become mere pawns in Herheim’s monothematic game; even such a fine actor as Eva-Maria Westbroek makes less of the doomed Liza than one would normally expect.
As Gherman, the penniless guardsman obsessed with wresting from the elderly Countess the mysterious secret of her success at cards, Aleksandrs Antonenko sounds vocally raw and unkempt, while his dramatic performance is rudimentary.
Altogether finer is Felicity Palmer as the Countess herself. It’s sad to hear that this may well be the 75-year-old mezzo’s final stage role; she still has a great deal to offer.
Philipp Furhofer’s sets lack colour and variety – for the bulk of the show we’re in Tchaikovsky’s music room.
Most of what intermittent dramatic tension or emotional engagement the evening has to offer comes from the pit, where conductor Antonio Pappano and the orchestra whip up the storm signally lacking on stage.