You will rarely hear a better sung and conducted version of this tense and tragic Tchaikovsky masterpiece than the one being performed in David Alden’s new production at the English National Opera. English tenor Peter Hoare is making his debut as Hermann and his singing and acting are heroically vivid and committed, gorgeous to listen to, totally convincing. He understands the torment and obsessions of this character and how the music conveys them. He works with the Tchaikovsky brothers and their concept unerringly. Giselle Allen as Lisa is also wonderful to listen to as well; with her shining voice and complete understanding of the score, she conveys the troubled innocence of Lisa. Felicity Palmer is a dominant and powerful Countess; and Nicholas Pallesen makes a striking and powerfully sung Prince Yeletsky. The entire cast is musically strong, as is the chorus; and Edward Gardner clearly understands the score, its drama, the sonorities and harmonies; he has total control over all the forces throughout, giving one of the most idiomatic performances of this dark work that I have ever heard.
All this is in the context of a disjointed production concept by David Alden. There is a strange disconnect between his expressionistic, surreal story telling and the actual words and music being sung and played. Alden seems to be popular at the ENO and I am certain I will be in a minority in my perception of his production, but for me, as often before, he does not seem to be engaged with the work itself; he seems, rather, simply to be using it as a chance to impose and express his own visual and symbolic obsessions. I found the whole approach and many of the sequences arbitrary. There are some fine moments – but I put those down mainly to singers who actually are engaged with the music and words emotionally and have a clear understanding of what they want to convey.
I didn’t find updating the story to Communist Russia actually added a thing; if anything, it was a distraction, especially in the ball scene and the places where a Grand Opera approach is required. The individual, one on one, relationships and the monologues worked much better.
I fear too that I am getting mighty tired of Alden’s chairs. There are always a lot of chairs in his shows. People drag them across the stage while other people are trying to sing, thus distracting the audience from what is central; and they are piled everywhere. People climb them as if they were barricades and then they declaim. Occasionally, it has to be admitted, someone sits on a chair.
Despite all this, some of the emotional confusions and depth of the tale are conveyed and Alden does allow singers simply to present the key moments with some directness. Hermann’s stages of descent into craziness are clearly portrayed; Lisa is a touching, passionate creature; and Felicity Palmer conveys both the scariness and the fascinating personal charisma of the Countess. Hers is a strong, pivotal performance; and the scene where Hoare’s Hermann invades her bedroom to get the secret of the cards from her is one that really works, with the two of them creating a sensational artistic rapport.
Gardner’s understanding and pacing of the score are simply exemplary. His approach is subtly nuanced throughout; his pacing is perfect; and he and the cast understand the subtleties and emotional power of what is a masterpiece. Gardner and his team also do justice to the Big Gun moments. The evening is certainly musically and vocally memorable; the hymn-like choral conclusion after Hermann’s death was haunting and powerful, as it needs to be to round off this story. He understands the real depth, mastery and focus of this score in all its variety. But the production was ultimately working against all that was fine in the performances. David Alden is simply going over the same old ground endlessly that he has been tilling for the last thirty years or so; his approach is, for me, inconsistent, outdated and, indeed, fatuous; it is also superficial; and there really are too many chairs on the stage.