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Spooky 'Queen of Spades' Avoids Eurotrash


by Olin Chism 30 Apr 2010

“Eurotrash” describes a certain kind of operatic production, fashionable across the Atlantic, that aggressively mocks the vision of the opera’s original creators. But not every unusual or even bizarre production is Eurotrash – and the Houston Grand Opera’s current “Queen of Spades” is a beautiful example of new ideas that work.

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The word “Eurotrash” was coined to describe a certain kind of operatic production, fashionable across the Atlantic, that aggressively mocks the vision of the opera’s original creators. The Eurotrasher invariably calls attention to himself, and the less his production has to do with the original, the better.

Probably the finest (that is, the worst) example of Eurotrash was Christoph Schlingensief’s late and unlamented production of Parsifal in the 20-aughts at the Bayreuth Festival. The best way to experience this Parsifal was to stare at the floor or put on a blindfold and just listen (at least Eurotrashers don’t generally mess with the sound). Alas, most people don’t have the self-discipline required to stare at a floor for five hours, and the urge to look, as with a terrible car wreck, is strong. Probably those who did look didn’t hear half the notes Wagner wrote.

It should be emphasized that not every unusual or even bizarre production is Eurotrash, nor does it have to originate in Europe. The urge to do something new with Butterfly or Boheme is understandable, and it’s quite possible to bring new ideas to a theatrical masterpiece without painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

A beautiful example of new ideas that work is the Houston Grand Opera’s current production of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades. It’s surreal, true, but the sometimes nightmarish quality of director Richard Jones’ and designer John Macfarlane’s conception (it originated at the Welsh National Opera) enhances rather than destroys the mood of Tchaikovsky’s work.

Macfarlane favors strange, near-disorienting angles — tables tilt, in one scene he almost succeeds in creating the illusion that the viewer is looking down into a pit rather than toward the rear of the stage. Jones has his chorus moving around, sometimes zombie-like, in mysterious formations.

There are a couple of misfires — a strange drag dance, a dead-countess scene that fails to spook the audience (there’s loud laughter instead) — but overall Jones and Macfarlane are Tchaikovsky’s friends, not his enemies.

By and large the cast is superb, as is the playing of the Houston Grand Opera orchestra under Carlo Rizzi’s guidance. Vladimir Galouzine (Herman), Tatiana Monogarova (Lisa), Tómas Tómasson (Tomsky) and Vasily Ladyuk (Yeletsky) bring beauty and dramatic weight to prominent roles, and Judith Forst brings striking believability to the 80-something countess while producing vocal sounds no one that age could manage.

The Queen of Spades has one more performance Saturday night at the Wortham Theater Center. Joining it this weekend (through May 14) is Handel’s Xerxes.

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