'Queen of Spades' Delivers a Royal Flush

Staging opera is difficult. There is something twee to lush period productions; there is something objectionable to excessive and irrelevant grotesqueries of Regietheater. A middle path—stagings that are significant and meaningful for modern audiences, but still loyal to the spirit of their original librettos—is hard to find. Happily, the Lowell House Opera’s production of Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades,” which ran March 25 through April 4,  navigated this problem with aplomb and magnificence.

Gherman, played by Mikhail Urusov and Adam Klein on alternating nights, is a patient in a mental hospital who has two obsessions: cards and Liza (Zoya Gramagin and Samantha Schmid). Liza is engaged to Yeletsky (Adam Pistole and Jacob Scharfman), to Gherman’s deep chagrin. The mental patient machinates to extract the card-playing secrets of Liza’s mother, the Countess or “the Queen of Spades,” (Kylee Slee and Giliana Norkunas), so that he may amass a fortune and elope with his beloved.

The staging was styled after German Expressionist films of the early twentieth century. The violent angles of the monochromatic backdrop especially echoed “Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari”—a suitable design decision, as much of the action of both works takes place in insane asyla. Oddly shaped walls and windows provide an ample number of crannies to accommodate characters abruptly entering and hiding during scenes. The sparse decoration of the set (gray walls, a few items of unornamented gray furniture) prevented its geometry from overwhelming the performance; rather, clean lines directed the eye to the centers of action. Costuming and makeup design followed a similar approach—most of the ensemble wore white coats, and the simplicity of the heavily stylized makeup (mostly just powder and black lipstick for the majority of the cast) emphasized the acting rather than distracted from it. Expressionism was a very canny choice: the aesthetic is historically distant enough from the modern audience to give the production an air of slight archaism, but close enough that the staging did not become mere spectacle; further, Expressionism’s visual vocabulary is almost unparalleled by any other modern art movement, which gave the production tremendous reserves of powerful images upon which to draw.

The musical aspect of the performance rose to superb virtuosity. Urusov’s performance of Gherman was showstopping: the power and clarity of his voice filled the performance space, and at the same time his acting was convincing and even moving, flying in the face of the stereotype of cartoonish operatic histrionics. The orchestra’s performance was very strong, in spite of the acoustic difficulty of the Lowell dining hall. Generally speaking, brass avoided overwhelming other sections, which was remarkable for such a resonant space.

The few weak spots in the production were generally issues of acting, which is admittedly an ancillary concern in opera. Samantha Schmid’s Liza wore an almost uniformly pained and disgusted expression that stood in harsh contrast to the sensitivity of Urusov’s Gherman. Irina Kareva’s Pauline had similarly unconvincing acting; additionally, her voice sounded somewhat strained during her solo near the end of the first act. Nevertheless, these difficulties detracted little or nothing from the production as a whole, which was defined by the strength of the staging’s conceit and the skill of the ensemble as a whole.

It is rare to find a perfect production, and indeed many would argue that there is no such thing. Whatever the case, Lowell House Opera’s “Queen of Spades” came very close. While its staging was perhaps not novel—the Metropolitan in recent years has been steering a similar middle ground between modern foolishness and tacky historical slavishness—its success in execution was outstanding even among good productions.

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