Many Americans are familiar with Italian, French and even German operas. Some prefer the ease of operas performed in English such as “Porgy and Bess,” but less familiar to audiences stateside are Russian operas. Thankfully, Tchaikovsky gave us eleven worthy operas; and while the most popular is arguably “Eugene Onegin,” his work “The Queen of Spades” (Pikovaya Dama) is also a riveting spectacle and has been produced many times over the years, in Russia and elsewhere around the world. The Queen of Spades is currently on a limited run in Chicago, at the Lyric Opera.
The United States has had a convoluted relationship with Russia over the years. Wary allies, hostile enemies, tentative respect, mistrust and fascination have all come into play. The atmosphere has become ever more neurotic and scary for Americans, especially the great many who are frightened by the prospects of past, present, and future election tampering by Russian sources. Nearly every day Vladimir Putin is in the news, or Russian-born Americans with government positions or connections to President Trump, and their stories have chilled and exasperated much of the general public. No wonder an opera sung in Russian is making its mark; and since most Americans know Tchaikovsky for the romance of “The Nutcracker” as well as “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty,” “The Queen of Spades” should be viewed as a very contrasting piece, an obsessive, at times freakish and frightening depiction of love, gambling and deal making that fits in with today’s discomforting environment.
A Bolshoi Opera performance of 1983 featured subdued sets and traditional costuming. The recent version by the Kharkov National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre was sung powerfully but dressed the cast in dated frilly costumes, wigs and hand fans that modern audiences often find boring. The 2018 Salzburg Festival rendition, with its starker sets of white or black, strange masks and the male lead the only character dressed in red, was more intriguing to see. While a Paris Opera National staging was starker, although with statues as props in some scenes. The Chicago production is somewhat more bizarre but does incorporate stylistic elements of some past productions, making for a creepy set of performances that may seem gimmicky to some viewers.
In brief, The Queen of Spades is a tragedy about a soldier, Gherman, who is obsessed with a woman named Lisa who is betrothed to another soldier. Gherman also learns that Lisa’s grandmother, the Countess, has a valuable secret involving gambling and betting on cards. His love and fixation of Lisa becomes secondary to his laser focus on the Countess’s knowledge of which cards to play, and he scares the Countess to death. Later, Lisa is so frustrated by Gherman that she takes her life, and at the end, when Gherman thinks he will experience a great gambling victory, he suffers a defeat instead and kills himself.
Within this grim framework there is a great deal of beautiful singing and sumptuous music, and peculiar explorations of personality and fate. Add to this some lively and eye-popping visual props such as puppets, a skeleton in a bed, and you have an opera you won’t soon forget.
Brandon Jovanovich is Gherman, and his portrayal of a desperate man with a few barely attainable goals is overwhelming. Sondra Radvanovsky as Lisa is somewhat more believable but as the show progresses, she becomes more frantic, more pained as well. The Chicago Children’s Choir adds a more cheerful feel to parts of the performance, and the musicians do a splendid job with their score.
Overall the vocals are wonderful in this production, but the sound and the cadence of Russian is certainly a difference to the audience’s ears: there is a very different feel to hearing dramatic Russian as compared to Italian or German, and certainly English (especially American English), and it is something to which the audience needs to grow accustomed to.
Certain aspects of the set design and pieces create a too-heavy sense of claustrophobia, and borders on too-campy. And those puppets, of varying sizes: at times they command outsized attention, but they are definitely a sight and a fright. Gherman’s party-hat-like gold crown, which he wears at times, is a bit jarring but also lends a touch of pathos. There is little that is subtle about this “Queen of Spades.”
Will we be seeing many more Russian-language operas in the near future in the US? Will Russian-language films endear themselves to audiences in the way that the Korean film and Best Picture winner “Parasite” is doing right now? Or will too many Americans get freaked out by the prospect of Russian-language entertainment growing in stature stateside?
– Ellen Levitt