“No class. No finesse.” The Countess’ lament for the olden days, delivered with gripping veracity by Felicity Palmer, just about sums up this brash, empty production, which despite its crassness is still worth experiencing for Palmer’s iconic performance, the superlative choral singing and the glorious playing of the English National Opera orchestra under Ed Gardner.
This is Gardner’s last opera at the Coliseum, and he goes out in fine style, whipping up emotional and dramatic storms in the pit, not only in the grand moments but also in the more subdued passages. The ENO musicians played with tremendous verve and panache for him, and they were matched by subtle and powerful singing from a chorus you’d find it hard to equal anywhere.
Felicity Palmer is the ‘go-to’ mezzo-soprano when a femme de nom is required, and her Countess was a master class in bearing, elegance, diction, projection of the text and authoritative singing. No one else came near to her, although Peter Hoare’s Hermann certainly suggested his character’s sense of isolation from the officer class of which he is only tenuously a part; in terms of singing, his plaintive tone made him sympathetic but was not always successful against the rising tide of the orchestration.
Giselle Allen is an exceptionally sensitive singer so it was mystifying that she could be so sketchily directed and unbecomingly visualized; she has the notes for Lisa but her depiction here did not help her to project them. Gregory Dahl’s Tomsky and Nicholas Pallesen’s Yeletsky each gave strong performances of their aria, and Colin Judson’s Chekalinsky added another to this tenor’s gallery of astute characterizations.
Catherine Young and Katie Bird sang persuasively as Pauline and Masha respectively, despite having to engage in the kind of stage antics which might have been shocking if we were seeing them in 1970 but which in 2015 elicit yet another groan of déjà-vu. Which brings us to the ‘Pastorale.’ In the ‘old’ ENO production of this opera, Stuart Hopps’ choreography and David Pountney’s direction created an exquisite rococo scene, evoking with delicate precision exactly what Tchaikovsky’s music conveys. In this loving tribute to his idolized Mozart, the composer references Die Zauberflöte in an interlude of classic formality, contrasting with the disordered court all around.
Of course, the Pastoral is a pretty rigid concept which hides plenty of poverty, cruelty and deception – those cots and shepherdesses were never that sleek or contented – but it’s not necessary to demonstrate that by sending it up in the most inane way imaginable, complete with furry animal heads. A programme note informs that “furries” is a world of its own in which “plushies” – people who are attracted to stuffed animals – dress up for ‘Plush parties’ which frequently involve anonymous sex. Lends a whole new meaning, one supposes, to ‘The Amorous Shepherd.’ Baaa. Woof.
Otherwise, David Alden’s production is a mish-mash of periods, costumes and styles, a vast lemony backdrop in front of which chairs are piled serving as ballroom and bedroom, and a letterbox style section framing events such as Lisa’s suicide. Setting it vaguely in the 1960s made nonsense of all the restrictive culture against which the ‘Three Cards’ story is played out, in which gamestresses could be reduced to beggary if they lost at cards. Presumably it’s all in Hermann’s tortured mind, as he relives it all again in nightmare.
It certainly was nightmarish for us, especially at the ending where the impact of Hermann’s suicide is lessened by his having to climb atop those chairs; Tchaikovsky write to his brother, Modeste (the work’s librettist) that he had been “overcome by such intense pity for Hermann that I burst out crying” – sadly we were overcome only by the desire for it to be over.