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Review: Too many queens in The Queen of Spades

A THEORY exists that Tchaikovsky, in order to avoid his homosexuality being revealed, deliberately drank water infected with cholera to commit suicide. I bet that after the first half-hour of Stefan Herheim’s so-bad-it’s-bad production of The Queen of Spades, plenty of audience members might find the idea tempting too.

Herheim makes Tchaikovsky the main character of this staging, which presents us with the composer’s surreal cholera-induced hallucinations. Sometimes he interacts with the other characters — directing them, accompanying them at the piano, furiously scribbling his musical ideas with a quill pen — and sometimes he’s invisible to them. He’s played by the baritone Vladimir Stoyanov who also sings the role of Prince Yeletsky just to add another layer of confusion. Oh, and all the male chorus are dressed as identical Tchaikovskys too.

Some badly-choreographed bullying seems to make a point about the homophobia which drove Tchaikovsky to his death, but it’s all so sloppily done, with inept gestures from principals and chorus alike, and with such a tangential relation to the original plot of the opera, that it all feels utterly inconsequential and pointless. The set, a drawing room with huge mirrors, wobbles perilously too.

It all has a depressing effect on the musical values. Sergey Polyakov (replacing an indisposed Aleksandrs Antonenko) lacks the heft that the role of Gherman requires; Eva-Maria Westbroek sounds unusually strained as Liza; even conductor Antonio Pappano is uncharacteristically lacklustre in the pit. Only Dame Felicity Palmer (Countess) generates a bit of excitement, but it’s not enough to spark life into this moribund mess of meta-theatre.

The Queen of Spades is playing at the Royal Opera House until February 1,