CAMBRIDGE — “Eugene Onegin” may be Tchaikovsky’s most famous opera, but “The Queen of Spades,” which he completed in 1890, three years before his death, is hardly less accomplished. Adapted from the 1833 short story by Alexander Pushkin, and set in St. Petersburg in the late 18th century, during the reign of Catherine the Great, it’s the tale of an officer who gambles away the love of his life. Fate hangs over Tchaikovsky’s Hermann in the key of B minor, the key of “Swan Lake” and his final symphony, the “Pathétique.” With a large cast and locales including the Summer Garden and the Winter Canal, “The Queen of Spades” is an ambitious undertaking, but at its opening performance Wednesday, Harvard’s Lowell House Opera showed a winning hand.
The production is essentially uncut; the only major omission is the first scene, in which little boys play soldier and pretend to be fighting the enemies of Russia while their nannies look on indulgently. There follows, in the libretto by Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest, Hermann’s disclosure that he has fallen in love with a noblewoman, Liza, who he learns is engaged to Prince Yeletsky. Liza is taken with Hermann and just might marry him instead, but he’s determined to extract from her grandmother, the Countess, the secret of “the three cards” so he too can gain his fortune. When he brandishes a pistol in front of the Countess, the old woman dies of shock; he has a vision in which her ghost tells him the secret, but when the third card turns out to be the queen of spades, his luck runs out.
The conceit of the Lowell House Opera production is that Hermann has gone mad and been confined to a mental institution. Stage director Roxanna Myhrum took this idea from Pushkin, since that’s what happens to Hermann at the end of the short story. It’s an ingenious solution to the problem of re-creating St. Petersburg in the Lowell House dining room. The entire opera takes place on just one set, whose slanting walls and distorted windows pay tribute to the 1920 German Expressionist film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” Hermann imagines that the hospital attendants, all dressed in white, are his friends Tomsky and Chekalinsky and Surin and Liza’s girlfriends and the guests at a fancy ball. Prince Yeletsky is presented as a patron of the hospital, so it’s natural that he and the Countess and Liza would visit.
What’s not clear is how all this can be a flashback, since Tchaikovsky’s opera (as distinguished from Pushkin’s tale) ends with Hermann’s suicide. But on Wednesday that seemed a minor quibble. The 64-piece orchestra, under music director Lidiya Yankovskaya, gave the overture a raw, blistering, almost hysterical reading, heavy on brass and percussion, and that set the tone for the evening. There were some problems with string intonation, and at times the intensity grew wearing, but Yankovskaya paced the performance well.
Two casts will rotate throughout the production. Wednesday the singing was powerful if occasionally strained; enunciation was excellent, and the Russian accents, from an almost exclusively non-Russian cast, were exemplary. What was missing, in some cases, was nuance in singing and acting. Metropolitan Opera tenor Adam Klein, in a ratty-looking bathrobe, was a riveting Hermann, but, in keeping with the concept, he seemed demented from the start, so there was no sense of his drifting into madness. As an unprepossessingly dressed Liza, Russian-born soprano Zoya Gramagin was fervent in voice but sedate in manner; at the end of the first act, when Hermann and Liza should embrace, she and Klein barely touched each other.
Ryne Cherry was an authoritative Tomsky, Kylee Slee a suitably bad-tempered Countess. As Prince Yeletsky, Adam Pistole looked uncomfortable in his tight-fitting suit coat, but was touching in his “Ya vas lyublyu” plea to Liza. There was good work from Lauren Frick as Liza’s friend Pauline, and from Charlotte McKechnie, Alexandra Dietrich, and Sam Bowen in the pastoral masque. The ensemble was full-throated and frequently funny.
English supertitles were large and clear, were accurate as translations, and with a few exceptions were synched with the singing. The production runs just under three hours, including a 20-minute intermission. It would have to be gripping to justify that span, and it is.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.