Score: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky;
Libretto: Modest Tchaikovsky; after Alexander Pushkin. At: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Dr. Tickets: 312-827-5600 or LyricOpera.org; $39-$299. Runs through: March 1; sung in Russian with projected English translations
It's been two decades since The Queen of Spades ( a.k.a. Pique Dame ) last graced the stage of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Back then it marked the start of Sir Andrew Davis tenure as Lyric's music director, so there's symmetry to him conducting Tchaikovsky's penultimate opera from 1890 with such care and nuance before he steps down next season.
This time, the Lyric presents director Richard Jones' well-traveled Welsh National Opera production from 2000. Rather than sticking to the opera's prescribed 18th-century imperial Russian setting during Catherine the Great's reign, Jones and his design team present a mélange of grubby 20th-century styles.
Traditionalists will be frustrated to decipher the exact era, but this allows production designer John Macfarlane to surrealistically play with decay and death visuals amid memories of lost youth. There's also a Grey Gardens documentary vibe, especially for the dilapidated mansion interiors which features a flattened-out painting of the youthful Countess propped against a wall.
The Lyric's Queen of Spades cast is top-notch. Not only do they navigate Tchaikovsky's gorgeously melancholy score with aplomb, they dig deep into the obsessive psychology of its unhinged characters.
Tenor Brandon Jovanovich passionately tears into Gherman, a gambling-fixated soldier who will stop at nothing to find out the three-card secret to winning the game of faro ( known only to the elderly Countess of Jane Henschel ).
So Gherman stalks and seduces the Countess' servant-like granddaughter Lisa, who is played with great agitation and despair by soprano Sondra Radvanovsky. Lisa falls for the unstable Gherman, even though she has a sure-bet investment in her engagement to Prince Yeletsky ( Lucas Meachem, who is vocally solid and appropriately stolid as an upstanding character ).
There's great interplay and vulgarity among the military men Count Tomsky ( Samuel Youn ), Chakalinsky ( Kyle Van Schoonhoven ) and Sourin ( David Weigel ), who each goad/bully Gherman to pursue the Countess. Other vocal standouts in small roles include Elizabeth DeShong as Pauline and Jill Grove as the imperious Governess.
Puppetry director Chris Pirie also deserves props for the party divertissement sequence that ditches the traditional ballet for an amazingly life-like puppet show full of foreshadowing. In the hands of revival director Benjamin Davis, The Queen of Spades is gripping music theater ( even with its mishmash of visually styles ).
The Queen of Spades is also a remarkable piece of art created by two gay brothers at a time when society shamed them for their sexuality. So feel free to find as much symbolism over inescapable obsession and painful longing in the opera to make it all even more beautifully tragic.