The Queen of Spades may be infrequently performed - this being ENO's first production in over twenty years - but Tchaikovsky's distinctly Russian Romantic style is immediately apparent from the overture alone. His orchestration is richly coloured, with brilliant melodies and sweeping melodrama. It makes for a fittingly glorious score for conductor Edward Gardner's last opera as Music Director at ENO.
Yet Director David Alden's production is cold by comparison. Set design employs an odd mix of visual styles that don't mesh together. A bland opening backdrop eventually makes way for a grimy, decaying setting bathed in a sickly yellow hue that just feels unfinished. It's decorated with gargoyles and chandeliers for a sense of antiquated Gothicism that undermines the otherwise modern setting.
The costumes follow suit, ranging from Cold War military uniforms, to a groovy 60s colour scheme. Fittingly, the chorus numbers are mostly static, yet this dissolves during the Ball scene into cartoon costumes, terrible dancing and rampant sex. It's bizarre, grotesque and jarringly comical.
Aesthetically, then, this production is a mixed bag, its best moments coming from Wolfgang Goebbel's stark lighting design and some spooky video projections that bring a welcome sense of the fantastical to this dark drama.
A lack of chemistry between the principals doesn't aid the frosty tone, but there are some exceptional individual performances. Giselle Allen makes for a dramatic Lisa, but it's Peter Hoare who excels in the lead role of Hermann - his bright, ringing tenor has sublime control in the upper register and, by the end, he truly sings with every ounce of strength. Best of all is Dame Felicity Palmer as the Countess: withered and vulnerable, yet eerily dominating and frightening.
Ironically the most arresting musical moment comes from the unaccompanied male chorus in the opera's denouement (a stunning, haunting piece), yet this production marks a rare chance to hear Tchaikovsky's score conducted by Gardner in one last hurrah.
Watch: The Queen of Spades runs at the Coliseum until 2nd July.