Sunday, 27 November 2011

Death holds the cards in Peter Konwitschny's Queen of Spades

Avgust Amonov & Nazanin Ezazi
Oper Graz, 27/11/2011

Avgust Amonov | Hermann
Asmik Grigorian
 | Lisa
Fran Lubahn | The Countess
David McShane | Count Tomsky
Andrè Schuen | Prince Yeletsky
Manuel von Senden | Chekalinsky
Wilfried Zelinka | Surin
Juraj Hurny | Chaplitsky
Konstantin Sfiris | Narumov
Taylan Reinhard | Master of Ceremonies
Dshamilja Kaiser | Polina
Carolina Julia Astanei | Governess
Nazanin Ezazi | Masha

Tecwyn Evans | Conductor
Peter Konwitschny | Director

Grazer Philharmonisches Orchester. Chor, Extrachor und Singschul' der Oper Graz.


When phoning to book tickets for this opera about six weeks ago, I was asked if I wouldn’t prefer to sit way over to the left in row 7 of the parterre. Now I understand the strange question. It might have been better phrased as ‘do you consider yourself a willing tool of oppressive capitalist forces? Because Peter Konwitschny needs some people to shame with a blinding spotlight.’ But Brechtian antics are only a tiny part of what goes on in this production, and by carving the opera up into carefully stylized and dizzyingly fast-moving sequences it’s as if Konwitschny is defying us to follow what’s going on, and indeed suggesting that there are broader points to be grasped if we can see past the mayhem. The mayhem is nevertheless highly entertaining and Konwitschny admits as much in his programme note, which I don’t translate as loosely as you might think: ‘these characters act crazily and the perception is that they are highly idiosyncratic individuals [wordplay with verrückt and ver-rückt]. In order to present this as a contrast, we need surreal shit to happen.’ As for broader points, well, that emphasis on contrast is mine and, despite Konwitschny’s mild wording, amplified in the production into statements on deviance and changeability which can be taken as épater le bourgeois or confronting some truths about the strange network of relationships in this opera. With this director we’re realistically talking both with an emphasis on the latter, but as penetrating as the observations sometimes are, they fall prey a few times too often to the same dysfunction which they target, and not in any perceivable metatheatrical way.


In the libretto, Death has a prominent but ambiguous presence, with references to mortality alternately downbeat and glib. The flippancy actually carries the suspicion that despair is a stage passed already, just in case there were any doubts that all is seriously unwell. Konwitschny wastes no time exploiting this but wanted to personify Death’s role without resorting to a grim reaper silent role and so uses the maid Masha instead (symbolism dressed in a servant’s apron bringing a whole new meaning to the expression ‘graveyard shift’). It’s neither vague nor heavy-handed – Masha pulls back the curtain at the beginning wearing bits of a skeleton costume, so you don’t even need to read the programme note, and the rest is done with deft situational touches and some subtle breaking of the fourth wall. When the Countess and Lisa enter Masha takes the opportunity to ‘kill’ Surin and Chekalinsky with a finger gun, bringing them back to life before anybody notices; the message, coming so soon after Hermann’s casual mention of suicide, being ‘I decide’. In Act I scene 2, the struggle for control of the candle – Werktreue! – makes a similar point (glancing at the audience, Masha snuffs it out and draws the curtains, so to speak, as she exits). She also dances Lisa off the stage during Yeletsky’s aria, shrugs her shoulders when Hermann renounces death, is of course the dealer at the card game, and takes Lisa away in a yacht fitted out with convenient onboard missiles. And that’s just some of the detail, none of which seems arbitrary but rather, in view of the more casual references to life and death in the text, makes plain what is at stake and what is not valued while exposing the crippling futility that leads people to gamble away what little they have.

Anyway, I believe I promised deviance. Let’s have some fun and do this with photos. Dame Edna meets Jackie O in Fran Lubahn’s Countess:


The Countess’s public face in this production is prim and matronly, though all the while she comes on to Hermann shamelessly. But the haughty manner she affected with the girls vanishes in the bedroom scene, where her maids undress her degradingly and, with one that image, her character suddenly gets more complicated. This was interesting on its own terms even though Konwitschny’s Musik-inszenieren failed for me here, there being no plausible way of getting around the Countess’s ‘this is boring me’, which is squarely aimed at the awfulness of their song and somewhat contrived when redirected to the maids’ abuse. (One of those moments where you know just exactly what Herheim would do). Her transformation, or latest thereof, is complete in the Grétry aria, when she removes her glasses and pores nostalgically over a lifetime’s memorabilia (and to think that Konwitschny tried to mark me as an apologist for the bourgeoisie). Fran Lubahn wasn’t really audible in her lower register but otherwise good, and had vocal stylings to go with all the various personalities Konwitschny has her play. Delivery was intentionally flat in her ghostly comeback, but it didn’t sound as if she were speaking against her will.

Asmik Grigorian & Andrè Schuen
This is what Yeletsky wears for his aria and also presumably why Lisa loses interest. But for Hermann to make merciless fun of him as well seems mean, and besides does Yeletsky really need more scores to settle? Andrè Schuen was the best singer in the cast and will possibly go places. But his aria got undermined and he didn’t even get to finish it. 

Carolina Julia Astanei
Rebelling against her repressive convent school education and sadistic governess has turned Lisa into a heartlessly cruel bully who is hated but feared by her peers. Her duet is out of tune, though nobody dares do anything other than applaud, and when Polina takes her spotlight she makes a show of snoring and slams the lid down on the pianist’s fingers just before the end (what is with Konwitschny and these premature terminations?). Two scenes later and the brat is gone. A token stab at character development aside, things moved too fast for the idea not to seem dropped. Asmik Gregorian sounded a bit strained in her final scene but was otherwise excellent, with concentrated and well-supported sound from her rich middle register.

Dshamilja Kaiser & Asmik Gregorian

All Konwitschny says about the military uniforms in the programme is something vague about society, though for Hermann & co., disillusioned jobless veterans would seem to be the more immediate context: Hermann cynically toasts the highpoint of the overture with his vodka bottle, and is initially uninterested in and then sceptical about the three cards. In a cutting image later on, stagehands and a fake director come along to remove the park bench from underneath these dregs of society. Konwitschny paces Hermann’s growing obsession well and there’s some well-choreographed, believable whispering from flaps in the curtains (the only fixed object in Alexander Mudlagk’s set). The Faithful Shepherdess got cut but there was the round at the end, which Hermann tries to join in, only to get jeered at by Lisa. He then delivers a speech in German (incidentally, Misha also reads the letter for him auf Deutsch). With Avgust Amonov’s accented German I couldn’t understand much, but it was castigating in tone and had no connection with the libretto. The bumbling drunk realizing his emasculation and the broader failure of a patriarchal society in decline? That he reasserts himself by sodomizing the Countess to death was, as with much of Konwitschny’s disquieting imagery, a devastating gesture. Amonov pushed too hard in his upper register but was generally solid; the same goes for David McShane’s Tomsky. 



Konwitschny was aiming for a Greek chorus and while their contributions weren’t pointed enough to pass as commentary, it was very entertaining. Catherine the Great was played as their fanciful delusion – a red carpet gets rolled out and the numpties presumably stand there waiting for hours. Elsewhere the money saved on sets went into costumes (also by Mudlagk): too many to mention, but the bunny suits win hands down. 

The orchestra under Tecwyn Evans sounded uncommonly polished for Graz, particularly their warm strings. There were some minor slips, but playing was generally focused and expressive. Tempi were well-judged and volume was singer-friendly. Evans’s sensitive approach to the score worked fine but a more prominent card motif would have been welcome.

This production is worth seeing for the razor-sharp Personenregie and what Konwitschny does with Misha, the Countess, and Hermann at a stretch. As for the rest, particularly Lisa and where she fits in aside from feeding into Hermann’s growing sense of failure (and even that isn’t really shown), I’m not so sure. The surreal touches are unexplained by definition but can seem somewhat of an indirect way to communicate what Konwitschny says, with some insistence, is ‘bubbling’ underneath the surface of this work. Five performances remain: 2/12/11, 11/12/11 (at 15.00), 12/1/12, 19/1/12 and 10/2/12.

Image credit: Werner Kmetitsch / Oper Graz

There are so many images for this production I’m not bothering to upload them all. For more check out this page.

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