Queen of Spades
When a company like Opera North comes down from Leeds for a London season it’s a major undertaking and a chance to show the company’s best face to the wider world. So you’d expect the repertory and the productions to be carefully chosen. And I can’t think what possessed ON to bring the shows it brought down to the Barbican the other week: one of them a bad staging of a good piece, the other a good staging of a bad piece.
The former was Tchaikovsky’s curiously compelling study in obsession, Queen of Spades, an opera not so perfectly constructed as the same composer’s great Eugene Onegin but far more successful than his other lyric-theatre scores. Intense, incisive, with an element of gothic horror, it packs punches in the right hands. But alas, not here.
Staged with no more than token competence by Neil Bartlett, it had dull design work and performances that felt like creaky relics from another era when real acting didn’t matter on the opera stage. Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts looked absurd and sang poorly in the central role of Hermann, who may be mad but needs some credibility as the ardent lover he signally failed to be here. Josephine Barstow has been a fine singing-actress in her time but barked her way through the character-role of the Countess. And so it went on. That the Barbican Theatre is acoustically a dead space, made for speech not music, didn’t help.
By contrast (and thank goodness!) there were wonderfully engaging and alive performances the next night in a clever, confident production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore by Jo Davis, a director of lower profile than Bartlett but (in this case at least) more spirit, style and pace. A bustling company effort, with old hands like Steven Page and Richard Angas backing up the youthful charm and brilliance of Hal Cazalet, Amy Freston and Grant Doyle, it was a joy. And John Wilson conducted with more care and concern than Sullivan deserves. But that’s the issue: Ruddigore is dreadful music, G&S at its most vacuous. The verve and dynamism lavished on it here was wasted effort; and I couldn’t help thinking that the personnel involved with these two shows from Leeds should have swapped over, concentrating all the strengths on the Tchaikovsky and leaving the Sullivan to sink without trace. Maybe that’s why I don’t run an opera company.
Astor Piazzolla was the composer who re-packaged tango for non-Argentine, non-dancing, classically trained audiences – developing its rhythmic calling card of four beats to the bar reorganised as three (which means, counting in quavers, 123456-78) into possibilities beyond the imagination of the sailors in the dockside bars of Buenos Aires who invented it. In the process, Piazzolla’s tango music has been internationalised. And it was interesting to find that none of the Fugata Quintet who played an all-Piazzolla programme at the Purcell Room last week had anything to do with Argentina. They were Greek, Armenian, Serbian and British, and had met as students at the Royal Academy in London.
That said, Piazzolla is their raison d’être, and they do it convincingly – albeit with an accordion rather than the true Argentine bandoneon. As a Piazzolla fan, I was impressed. Especially by the violinist, who delivered the percussion effects (rhythmic scratchings on the near side of the bridge, which, in my innocence, I used to think was done by washboards) with panache.
But much as I love this music and can happily sit through hours of it – including Piazzolla’s tango opera Maria de Buenos Aires which has never had a proper London staging: it did – I have to admit that it’s a one-trick game. The same idea is endlessly repeated, with much the same colours and textures. What saves it, of course, is that the idea is good. And addictive. But whether musical addictions are significantly healthier than any other kind, I’m not so sure.