By Bryson David Hoff
Staging the supernatural is a tricky affair. While theatre-going members audience are willing to suspend their disbelief for a certain level of artifice, there is still a razor-thin line between being inventive and taking the viewer out of the immediacy of a scene. This is a line that Lyric’s production of Queen of Spades toys with perhaps more than is advisable.
This seldom-performed Tchaikovsky opera centers on common soldier Gherman (tenor Brandon Jovanovich) who forms an obsession with noblewoman Lisa (soprano Sondra Radvanovsky). When he learns that her guardian (mezzo-soprano Jane Henschel) supposedly holds a secret that will allow any man to win at cards, he becomes single-mindedly driven to obtain the secret so that he might use it to win enough money to marry Lisa.
There’s no denying that this might be the strongest overall principal cast in a Lyric production this season. Jovanovich’s Gherman is a bundle of nerves and the same ringing heroic tenor that has served him so well in The Ring Cycle contributes to his performance as a man governed by dark impulses that he has rationalized and romanticized to himself. Likewise, his Ring castmate Samuel Youn takes the supporting role of Tomsky and makes it something truly special, alternately comic and truly menacing, thanks to the beautifully rich low end of the bass-baritone’s vocal instrument.
Likewise, the bulk of John Macfarlane’s set and costuming choices are very effective. Of note are the large, bare rooms that represent the Countess’s manor, effectively indicating the fading prestige of Russia’s nobility, both in the story’s original setting and this production’s transposed, post-Revolution time period. Similarly, the decision to stage the climactic final card game on a large, disk-shaped rake effectively melds the literal scenic element, namely the card table the gamblers are circled around, with a thematic significance, the raked stage being a theatrical trope for classical high tragedy.
However, without spoiling plot elements for prospective audience members, it must be said that the staging of the pivotal scene that opens act three undercuts a lot of these choices in using elements that are either more comedic in practice than in conception or else just plain incongruous with the dramatic import of the action. As a result, the jarring effect undoes a little bit of the spell weaved by the more restrained staging of the first two acts and it takes a bit for the disbelief to be re-suspended and for the opera and the audience to get back on the same page.
So the question is whether one mishandled moment is enough to ruin an evening of opera. Of course it is not, but is difficult to pretend it doesn’t let the wind out of the sails a bit. Queen of Spades remains a gripping and engaging piece of musical drama that, perhaps due to the shear volume of quality work its composer produced in his lifetime, does not get the exposure one might otherwise expect. Likewise, this production has furnished it with a worthy cast and it is clear that great thought and intention has gone into its design elements. It’s just a shame that one bad idea from someone on the production staff has left a blemish on what otherwise might have been a perfect production.
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents Queen of Spades at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago through March 1. Tickets may be purchased at http://www.lyricopera.org