Opera producers and directors the world over are answering the call for contemporary scores and productions that tell today’s stories. The doors are opening for new audiences, peopled with those who came to ticket-purchasing age with a communication device in their hands and an uncompromising, relevant and challenging cinema. To keep those butts in the seats while continuing to celebrate the standard repertoire, reexamination of chestnuts is imperative. Deconstruction if necessary, for it is far better to shred the conventional perspective and invite a fresh window into the story than to lose them altogether.
Director Richard Jones (with revival director Benjamin Davis) has chosen to open the windows of Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades” and let in Freud and all his friends. The ill-fated love between the tenor and the soprano might have been story enough at one time, but this production invites the audience into the very subconscious of the anti-hero, sometimes with such shocking effects that Quentin Tarantino might be bemused. The story is simple enough: boy loves girl, girl leaves her fiancé for boy, boy loves gambling too much, boy scares girl’s grandmother to death in an attempt to wrestle the secret of the three cards from her that allow any gambler to win, if with consequences. A little “Romeo and Juliet,” a little “Faust” and a little of “Traviata”’s Act III sprinkled on top.
Jones, however, is interested in the unraveling of the mind. What internal maladies influence the outcomes? Which external forces pave the way to insanity? John Macfarlane’s set and costume design are in on the shredding of the mind as well: if Jones leads us into the psyche, Macfarlane puts us in the space in which it unraveled.
As the human subject, Gherman, Brandon Jovanovich scores a huge success. Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest’s libretto (taken from Pushkin) shows the leading man as an outsider. Jones instead puts him in almost every scene, often as a silent witness, sometimes merely soaking in the negative energy. If it wasn’t already a big enough sing, Jovanovich is on his feet most of the night. He sings it beautifully. One hopes he is wearing comfortable shoes.
Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky is ravishing as Lisa, who is courted and bedded (is it against her will?) by Gherman and is surely in need of an addict support group by the end of her story. It’s easy to see why Radvanovsky would be drawn to this role, which affords her many opportunities to loose her voluptuous, colorful instrument while playing at open-hearted naiveté. She can sing facing upstage in Lyric’s massive house and be heard everywhere, even when she is singing in her middle register. She can lie down on a bed, put her head over the edge and sing with her neck stretched in a position which it seems would make singing less than optimal, with no change in tone or projection. Chicago knows that Radvanovsky is a gift and keeps calling her back.
It is lovely to see Jane Henschel as the Countess, the real Queen of Spades. As Lisa’s spurned fiancé, Lucas Meachem delivers some of the best singing of the evening in his gorgeous aria and draws his characterization with deftness and generosity. Elizabeth DeShong sings with great warmth as Lisa’s friend Pauline, and Jill Grove makes an indelible impression in the all-too-small role of Lisa’s Governess. Samuel Youn is a fearless Count Tomsky (friend? foe? fiend?), both vocally and physically. I could say more but that would give too much away.
Sir Andrew Davis and his orchestra explore every color and nuance of this heady, sexy score and then disappear at all the right moments, content to allow the story to be carried on their electric current. Chorus master Michael Black’s charges are simply perfect in every way, both in the delivery of their singing and their interesting blocking about which, once again, I will say no more.
Some might say that Jones’ psychological pyrotechnics overpower the story. They might say that he has taken a secondary layer of characterization and superimposed it over the entire tale, throwing off the balance. Some might say that there are moments in this “Queen of Spades” that are so shocking, so disturbing…
…that they just couldn’t stop talking about it. (Aaron Hunt)
Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 North Wacker, (312)332-2244, lyricopera.org, $39-$299. Through March 1.