“Enough of this nonsense,” the elderly Countess commands in Act II of Tchaikovsky’s 1890 opera The Queen of Spades. She is referring to the excessive flattery of her attendants as they put her to bed, but the sentiment applies just as well to the shenanigans of Stefan Herheim’s current production at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Playing fast and loose with the opera’s story, the Norwegian director is up to his familiar trick of injecting an opera with a wholly new plot element cobbled from the biography of its composer or from related historical material.

For an opera composed by Tchaikovsky, this means added elements about his homosexuality as well as about his death from cholera after consuming contaminated water. Herheim lets you know where he is headed even before the music begins. In a mimed sequence, a figure representing Tchaikovsky is seen performing oral sex on Gherman, the opera’s nominal male protagonist, who in this production takes second place to Herheim’s imaginary character. Having paid Gherman for his services, Tchaikovsky takes a drink and collapses, as if he has committed suicide.

Whenever highball glasses appear thereafter (always glowing from the inside) as a kind of visual leitmotif, death is sure to follow. The Tchaikovsky figure himself is onstage nearly all the time, frequently—and irritatingly—pretending to conduct the music. At first you think he is an added mute character, but later, he jumps in to sing the part of Prince Yeletsky, an upstanding aristocrat who is betrothed to the Countess’s granddaughter Liza. She, however, succumbs to the advances of Gherman, a passionate gambler determined to find out a winning secret known only by the Countess.

Vladimir Stoyanov as Yeletsky. Photo: Catherine Ashmore / Royal Opera House.

Herheim obviously sees a parallel between Yeletsky’s unsuccessful romance with Liza and the disastrous marriage Tchaikovsky entered into to disguise his homosexuality. Tchaikovsky/Yeletsky here becomes the opera’s main character, usurping attention from Liza and Gherman. (In case you don’t get the point, the singers of the male chorus are made up to look like Tchaikovsky too.) This case of mixed identity is confusing, because when Tchaikovsky/Yeletsky interacts with other characters, you never really know whether he does so as the composer or Yeketsky or both at the same time. It’s also questionable to have all the action take place in Tchaikovsky’s study rather than the multiple St. Petersburg locations specified in the opera. But the set, designed by Philipp Fürhofer, is impressive and proves remarkably versatile for the massed scenes. The stage is also beautifully lighted by Bernd Purkrabek.

One of the greatest of Russian operas, in this production, makes nowhere near the impact it should.

Nevertheless, Herheim’s staging, which was first seen in Amsterdam in 2016, is a jumbled mess from which Tchaikovsky’s essential characters and their emotions emerge only randomly. One of the greatest of Russian operas, in this production, makes nowhere near the impact it should.

The conductor Antonio Pappano must have realized this, but he did his best to uphold the musical side of this ill-begotten venture with a performance that displayed the score’s dramatic tension. The cast is not one for the record books, but it was never less than solid. At the performance I attended on January 22, Sergey Polyakov replaced an under-the-weather Aleksandrs Antonenko to give a highly credible performance as Gherman. Polyakov can sound a bit dull in mid-range, but his ringing high notes more than compensate.

Felicity Palmer as the Countess. Photo: Catherine Ashmore / Royal Opera House.

Eva-Maria Westbroek was in fervent form as Liza, her voice sounding full and rich, except at the top. Her anguished solo scene—or at least much of it—in which she nervously awaits Gherman was one time when you could focus on a character’s plight without Herheim’s distractions. As Tchaikovsky/Yeletsky, Vladimir Stoyanov duly discharged the responsibilities thrust upon him and would doubtless have made a stronger impression in the prince’s gorgeous aria under more favorable circumstances; still, he sang the piece expressively.

John Lundgren performed appealingly and with polish as Count Tomsky, but his upbeat song in the final scene sounded menacing, whereas it is meant to cheer Yeletsky up. Best was Felicity Palmer, who had already made a name for herself when I first heard her forty years ago in a Carnegie Hall concert performance of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Il Crociato in Egitto. Once a Liza of repute, Palmer has been celebrated as the Countess for some years now, and her portrayal remains as potent—vocally and otherwise—as ever. She can make the sung text sound vivid no matter what the language, even Russian.

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