23 Nov 2011

The Queen of Spades, Opera North

Opera North holds a special place in my affections: my first full opera in the theatre was the company’s Wozzeck, which I saw as a schoolboy at the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield.

The experience marked me for life. I have never doubted since that Wozzeck is one of the greatest operas ever written, nor have I doubted that opera, whatever the disappointments one may experience in practice, can at its best prove at least as potent a form of drama as any other. It is many years now since I heard a performance from the company, though I have received very good reports from those who have, often comparing its offerings favourably with those on offer from the two principal London houses. I was therefore delighted to have opportunity to see and to hear for myself in Opera North’s first visit to the Barbican Theatre. (More are planned.) The timing was interesting too, affording comparison with Eugene Onegin across town at the Coliseum. Claire Seymour, writing for this site, enjoyed Deborah Warner’s staging much more than I did (click here).

First impressions of Neil Bartlett’s production were preferable to those of Warner’s Met-bound anodyne crowd-pleaser. There is, at least to begin with, no evident point of view expressed; straightforward storytelling seems the order of the day. By the same token, however, that does not come across as a deliberate policy to play safe, even to condescend. The setting is where it ‘should’ be; costumes are of the period; there is neither jarring nor particular elucidation. It would have been bizarre and not just unwelcome if the audience had followed the practice of a segment of that for Onegin and had drowned out the music by applauding Kandis Cook’s serviceable sets; they simply did their job without ostentation and without sentimental emphasis upon petit bourgeois conceptions of the ‘beautiful’. However, I said ‘first impressions’ above, because there is one aspect of Bartlett’s staging that might distress the literal-minded. It seemed interesting to me, yet arguably out of place in a production that offered nothing more of the same, rather as if the concept had wandered in from elsewhere. I speak of Bartlett’s treatment of the Countess, who emerges a sex-crazed vamp: she certainly would have captured attention in her scarlet gown even if she had not been played by Dame Josephine Barstow. Fitting or not, it was at least an idea, which was more than could be said for anything Warner mustered. The Personenregie, however, was considerably less skilled, or at least its execution was. And If Catherine the Great made her appearance, I am afraid I missed it.

The real problems, though, lay in the musical performances, and above all with Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts’s Hermann. It did not sound as though this were an off-day, more a matter of having taken on a task that lay far beyond what the voice was incapable of delivering. It would be a matter of taste rather than judgement whether the shouting or tuning proved more painful. This, I am sad to say, constituted some of the most troubling professional singing I have heard; indeed, most student or other amateur performances are executed at a much higher level. He improved slightly during the third act, though he continued to croon in a manner that might have been thought excessive for a West End musical. Some smaller roles were no less approximate and crude, though, by the same token, some proved much better. William Dazeley’s Yeletsky impressed, as did the Tomsky of Jonathan Summers. Perhaps best of all was Alexandra Sherman’s Pauline. Hers was that rare thing: a true contralto. Moreover, she could use it to properly dramatic ends, the song, ‘Podrugi mil├»ye,’ musically shaped and genuinely moving. Orla Boylan’s Lisa had its moments, but sometimes found herself all over the place in terms both of (melo-)drama and of intonation.

The chorus had clearly been well trained by Timothy Burke, and generally acquitted itself well, most of all in the third act, when, despite the translation, choral sound came across as more plausibly Russian than elsewhere. (The translation itself veered between embarrassing couplets and the merely prosaic; in that respect, Martin Pickard’s work recalled what we heard from him for Onegin.) Barstow, as the reader may have guessed, stole the show. Though her tuning was a little awry upon her entrance, and some might have queried the preponderance of quasi-spoken, parlando style, she can still hold a stage. One longed for more, wishing that her palpable commitment had rubbed off on others.

Richard Farnes proved intermittently impressive. There was certainly dramatic drive, sensitivity too, to his conducting. Yet, whilst there were moments in which the orchestra sounded to have just the right Tchaikovsky sound - the opening of the third act, for instance - there were other passages in which the score veered awkwardly between dark, would-be Wagnerism and soft-centred Puccini. A greater body of strings would have assisted: though what was mustered played well, the lack of heft was apparent throughout. Characterful woodwind was offset by variable brass, sometimes blaring, sometimes surprisingly tentative. (Placing outside the pit, at the edge of the stage, doubtless did not help.)

It was just about worth it for the Countess, then, but Opera North’s outing to London proved for the most part a damp squib. And it is surely a little too easy to say that the problem may have lain in staging so ambitious a work. After all, it was Wozzeck, no less, that made such an impression upon me in Sheffield. The stage director of that searing, life-changing Wozzeck? Ironically, one Deborah Warner…

Mark Berry

Click here for a photo gallery and other production information.