Imagine you are one of those beautiful young women dating a rich guy on Bravo's The Millionaire Matchmaker. You see the possibility of a comfortable and luxurious life looming before you, despite your potential fiancé’s ugly face, ill manners, social pretentions, or his just plain boring personality. Would you return to the man you really love, the handsome penniless one with the gambling addiction?
That’s pretty much the decision faced by Lisa (skillfully sung by Tatiana Monogarova) in the Houston Grand Opera production of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, which opened Friday night with a cast of perfect singers and stunning, archetypal sets and costumes by John Macfarlane.
There’s no matchmaker here, so Patti Stanger isn’t a character, as operatic as she might be on television. Pushkin’s 1834 story, however, is so up-to-date in this powerful production that it doesn’t play at all like a dusty intro-to-lit class novella. With its impassioned arias, lush and/or dark orchestration, and sudden shifts between choral episodes and intimate duets and ensembles, The Queen of Spades is perhaps the most compelling Russian rep opera for contemporary audiences.
While immersing myself in the experience, I couldn’t think of too many other operas focused on gambling. The theme, of course, makes its way into Verdi’s La Traviata and Massenet’s Manon. Prokofiev composed The Gambler, of which I know nothing. However, I remembered seeing Robert Ashley’s Concrete at La Mama a few years ago, a contemporary opera all about gamblers. In his sixth scene, “Interchangeability,” there is a line that brings great bearing to Tchaikovsky’s work: “…the real thrill in gambling is to lose. It is a test of character, as in war.”
I mention Ashley’s phrase because it’s the most concise way to ruminate over Herman, the opera’s protagonist, also a soldier. It’s in the losing, and how he confronts it, that is the essence of this character. By the second act, we learn that he’s not only obsessed with getting the girl he loves away from her rich suitor, but also getting to her grandmother, a Countess who once sold herself in Paris in exchange for knowledge of a secret card-game strategy.
And there’s a mysterious curse on her, one that eventually involves Herman. Tenor Vladimir Galouzine has sung the tragic role numerous times at all the great opera houses, and consequently he brings an emphatic, multi-layered interpretation to Houston keeps you on the edge of your seat for three hours.
Without the strong voices that certainly took their inspiration from Galouzine’s overwhelming finesse and confidence, The Queen of Spades could be rough going for the average viewer. Macfarlane’s sets and costumes are mostly grey, white, and black with only hints of color here and there, such as Lisa’s simply coral dress and coat. The brightest pigment on stage are the lips of the Countess, seen not on the live character but rather in a huge canvas that transmutes throughout the evening, a kind of Dorian Gray portrait that references both traditional portraiture and the pop era of Warhol.
It is motion that makes this production vivid, from Linda Dobell and Priscilla Nathan Murphy’s rich choreography of pedestrian traffic and aristocratic pageantry to the nuances of a few carefully-placed puppets brought to life by the France/Britain-based company Green Ginger. The nearly 20-foot skeleton in bed with Herman in the third act (posed vertically so it feels as if you are watching the terrifying scene from the bedroom ceiling) is certainly an unforgettable high point.
Everything about this production is sophisticated and thrilling, until the last scene, where dancer Matthew Redden offers a ridiculous dance in the middle of the gambling table as Tómas Tómmasson sings a metaphorical aria about his prowess with women. The men are celebrating hedonism in a rousing choral passage (“Burn the candle with women, cards, and booze!”), but since no women are around Redden becomes their willing “boy toy.” Was it necessary for Tómmasson to push Redden off his high heels, pull at his earrings, slap his ass, and choke him with a scarf? It was like a bad scene from a lesser Fassbinder film, circa 1972, and the only flaw in an otherwise sophisticated performance.