Review: Lyric’s The Queen of Spades, Tchaikovsky’s Punk Rock Opera

Brandon Jovanovich (left) as tormented protagonist Gherman and Lucas Meachem as Prince Yeletsky face off in the climactic scene. Photo by Andrew Cioffi.

There are performances that play exactly to your sensibilities and provide you with thorough delight. There are others that may challenge your tastes but leave you thinking, “Well, that was interesting.” And then there are envelope-stretching productions that, while well meaning, engender a response along the lines of, “WTF?”

The Lyric Opera’s revival of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 1890 opera The Queen of Spades, directed by Benjamin Davis, will fit into the WTF category for many attendees—but not necessarily in a bad way. If you are open to new experiences and want to see things you likely have never seen on a stage, and may never see again, then this may just be the right opera for you.

The Queen of Spades, which opened on Saturday and has four more performances through March 1, is about the destructive power of obsession. Nothing unusual there, as some variety of obsession is at the core of most operas. But few feature an object of obsession who is as obsessed as her stalker, a lengthy puppet show, and oh, yes, a deranged protagonist, lying in bed, who embraces his hallucination of a singing skeleton.

Yes, this happens in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Based on an 1833 short story by Russian author Alexander Pushkin, the opera is Tchaikovsky meets Hitchcock meets David Lynch. It is completely original, ahead of its time, and a perplexing piece of work.

It is clear from the very beginning that Gherman, the central character ably played by tenor Brandon Jovanovich, is a man on the edge. An almost penniless soldier, Gherman tells two Army friends, Chekalinsky (Kyle van Schoonhoven) and Sourin (David Weigel), that he is desperately in love with a young woman he has only seen from afar: Lisa (Sondra Radvanovsky), the granddaughter of a noblewoman identified only as the Countess (Jane Henschel).

Already depressed, twitchy and downcast because he believes he is too poor to ever win Lisa’s affection, Gherman gets worse. Wealthy Prince Yeletsky (Lucas Meachem, fresh off his star turn as the title character in this season’s Lyric production of Don Giovanni) shows up to announce that Lisa has accepted his proposal of marriage. The two then sing an overlapping duet in which Yeletsky proclaims his happiness, while Gherman says he has nothing to live for.

But this is opera, so why have just one obsession when you can have two? Count Tomsky (Samuel Youn), a sleazy provocateur, tells a tale of the Countess, now elderly but once a beauty known in the French court as the “Venus of Moscow.” Tomsky, who shows up at key junctures of the opera, sings that the Countess, while in Paris, learned the secret of three playing cards that enabled her to win at the gambling table. So Gherman, along with his monomaniacal determination to win Lisa’s heart, also becomes obsessed with reaching the Countess and getting her to identify those winning cards.

By the end of Act 1, Gherman has turned into a stalker, creeping across rooftops to the skylight in Lisa’s room. But Lisa, who is seen earlier scampering away to avoid Gherman’s effort to gain her attention, had noticed the passion in his eyes… and she is obsessed with him as well. If that scenario screams “doomed lovers” to you, you’d be correct.

Gherman stalks Lisa (Sondra Radvanovsky), the object of his obsession.. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Much of Act 2 is set at a public celebration. Lisa gives the cold shoulder to Yeletsky, who responds with the opera’s most beautiful aria, expressing his deep love but granting Lisa her freedom.

The aforementioned puppet show ensues, with a tale about a young woman who rejects a nobleman’s riches in favor of a poor shepherd, which Gherman sees as a portent of his romantic intentions. The puppetry, a modern addition to Tchaikovsky’s original, is excellent, but audience opinions are likely to be mixed over whether it amplifies the story line or bogs it down in an opera that runs almost four hours.

Lisa slips Gherman a key to the mansion where she lives so they can tryst, but Gherman uses it to gain access to the Countess’ chamber, where he first tries to cajole and then threatens her to get her to tell him which are the winning cards. The consequences of this confrontation lead ultimately to the demise of all three of the central characters.

The final Act III begins with the skeleton, singing in the voice of the Countess, revealing what she says are the three winning cards. Lisa awaits Gherman in a park, pronouncing that she will forgive and love him if he proves he is not a murderer. But when Gherman arrives, he is clearly mad and focused on gambling riches, rejects Lisa and leaves her irreparably devastated, and heads to the casino.

Interrupting ribald merriment led by Tomsky, Gherman bets all of his money on the three magic cards. He wins the first two draws, proof to him that the apparition had in fact ensured his fortune. But Yeletsky accepts his double-or-nothing challenge, with the skeleton now overlooking the proceedings. The third draw is not the ace called by Gherman, but the queen of spades, and Gherman meets an unhappy ending.

As is standard for the Lyric, the voices are gorgeous and the characters well played. Sir Andrew Davis conducted the Lyric Opera Orchestra through Tchaikovsky’s complex score, though with the emotion and bombast that are trademarks of the composer, the music sometimes competed with the singing.

The stagecraft produced by set and costume designer John McFarlane has some incredible moments. There is a scene in Act I, with young women in white lounging in Lisa’s room, in which the lighting and framing looks remarkably like a painting. The Act III scene with Gherman and the skeleton is presented as though seen from above, with the bed actually vertical to the stage.

If you are patient, have an open mind, and a taste for the bizarre, The Queen of Spades is a worthwhile—though long—night out.

The Queen of Spades will next be performed Wednesday (February 19) at 7pm, and then in 2pm matinees on February 23 and 26 and March 1. Tickets are $39-$259 on Wednesday, $69-$299 on February 23, $79-$279 on February 26, and $99-$299 on March 1; tickets can be purchased on the Lyric Opera website or the box office at 20 N. Wacker Drive.

Bob Benenson
Bob Benenson

Bob Benenson is publisher/writer/photographer of Local Food Forum, a new newsletter that covers the broad sweep of the Chicago region’s food community. He is a longtime advocate for a better, healthier, more sustainable food system and is an avid home cook who gets most of his delicious ingredients from local farmers.

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