Tchaikovsky’s penultimate opera spins out Pushkin’s short story on the dangers of gambling into a human tragedy centred on fate, a leitmotif permeating his dramatic work. At ENO it provided the backdrop to David Alden’s solipsistic psycho-drama focused on Hermann’s madness.
It also provided Edward Gardner, the company’s Music Director since 2007, with his swansong. Gardner’s delicate shaping of musical line is remarkable. The score’s Mozartian ebb and flow was masterfully handled, bubbling with emotional intensity without descending too far into psychotic turmoil. Its simple, powerful musical gestures were given an understated elegance.
Throughout his tenure, Gardner has remained a servant to musical narrative. In contrast, Alden, another familiar face at the Coliseum, is known for post-modernist revisionism. Here, Tchaikovsky’s opera was spun out into a loose exploration of obsession, madness and excess. Set in the vague mid-20th century, the design was Soviet chic-meets-Hunger Games, an evocation of ridiculous, decaying decadence.
Dramatically, the production unfolded at its own pace. Peter Hoare was a Hermann with several screws loose, leery and dangerous from the off with a wild and intense tone. He was the fixed point for Alden’s web of absurdist directorial conceits, including an erotically hyper-charged chorus dressed as furry animals and the orgiastic flurry of playing cards.
Felicity Palmer was a show-stopping Countess, her magnetic voice bursting with character. After her death, she is fetishized by Alden; her face blown-up and projected on stage, and her disembodied voice processed through digital effects. In life, Palmer’s Countess is a commanding vocal presence but a ghostly figure, physically inert.
Alden, the conceptualist, seemed content at throwing a succession of curveballs with his production. Gardner, a master craftsman, breathed new life into the score with his affinity for musical narrative, and in the overtures delivered purity, refinement and bliss.