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Gushing over The Queen of Spades


It is common for those of us who work in opera (and probably also those who don't) to take works for granted. What I mean is that we sit and consider a future season, rake through the works that are on the list, imagine people in the roles etc. And then sort of judge the whole thing on the reputation it has, as much as on the extent to which we might admire or like the work.  Boheme is a good example of this; it's Boheme, right?  So it is about time we did it - but I'll be honest, it is a long time since I sat and listened to it on CD. Yet when it gets into the theatre and you start to hear it in detail, live,  with the orchestra rehearsing, you again realise how very, very good it is. 

Some operas you may listen to more frequently as you sit on a bus or do some work, but when it gets into the theatre, with a staging, when all that narrative music begins to make perfect sense, the opera in question can take on an even more profound dimension. This is what is happening with Queen of Spades at the moment and it hit home with real force yesterday as I sat and listened to the sitz probe. As the first time to hear cast and orchestra together, the sitz is always exciting and revealing, and of course there are the musical team's technical processes of getting balance right (especially in our peculiar pit arrangement) to interest you. But the most exciting thing about yesterday's rehearsal was realising again, but with bells on, just how remarkable an opera The Queen of Spades is. I have always preferred it to Onegin, but sometimes, one wonders if a preference is based simply on the premise of the opera rather than its music and I think in this instance it is probably both elements that elevate it beyond probably anything Tchaikovsky composed operatically (I reserve judgement on Mazeppa which I love but haven't seen in a theatre). 

QoS has that quality where the entire opera makes you feel uncomfortable, anxious, excited, moved, and never in a predictable way. The virtual incantation of "three cards" throughout is dread personified. There are other operas like this; Turn of the Screw springs to mind. But QoS does it with more lavishly beautiful music - is the final hymn the most wondrous thing in Tchaikovsky's rep? - with not a wasted note, not a scintilla of fluff or nonsense and motifs that bore into you with devilish persistence.  

And what of the singers? Peter Wedd drew applause from his colleagues and the orchestra- no mean feat! And of course there is Rosalind Plowright, her assumption of the Countess is, I can tell you, a terrifying, physical creation as well as a vocally commanding one. Watching the first tech rehearsals, she basically shit the life out of me.  Natalya Romaniw has been hoovering up praise all summer after her Onegin at Garsington, but one of the most exciting things about sopranos "on the rise" is that each time you hear them, there is a change in their voice, a growth or a blossoming. I have had the pleasure of hearing this development over several years from Gioielli, through L'amore dei tre Re and now into this Lisa in QoS. Her Act 3 aria Akh! istomilas ya goryem wasfrankly, breathtaking. My seven year old daughter, Fiora, had popped by the theatre and sat with me to watch it too, and from that relentless introduction of strings and funereal trumpet to her last note, we were both utterly transfixed. That is no mean feat, either! Audiences have a real treat in store. 

We have had such a strong season - everybody seems happy and excited by what they have seen on stage at Holland Park. But the past couple of weeks has been Rossini and Straussian waltz, so it will be good to get back to anxiety, horror, heartbreak and music of such gravitas. I am also aware that it is  unusual for me to express such views before a show: I think the last time I was so publicly excited was before Francesca da Rimini and the first review from David Nice tore it a new fundament (it got much better thereafter). But as my twitter profile says, "often wrong, but never in doubt."



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