Ms. Steier sometimes clutters this staging with an excess of carnival antics. Still, the production offers a deeply personal reading of a staple without crossing a line and imposing an interpretation upon it.
That more ideological approach has been the province, his many critics have said over the years, of the avant-garde director Hans Neuenfels, now 77. I’ve certainly seen some agenda-driven Neuenfels productions, including his Salzburg debut in 2000, a staging of “Così Fan Tutte” riddled with kinky sexual play and leather. The experience led the soprano Karita Mattila to complain in a later interview of feeling like “a beaten dog” after every performance. But Mr. Neuenfels’s new staging of Tchaikovsky’s “Pique Dame,” also presented at the main festival hall, despite some baffling touches, shows a compelling director in his element.
In a conversation with Yvonne Gebauer, the production’s dramaturge, printed in the program, Mr. Neuenfels makes some penetrating comments about why the main character, Herman, an officer of no means, spends his time in gambling houses without actually gambling. Herman is frustrated by the randomness of existence, Mr. Neuenfels says, whereby people born to privilege enjoy the freedom and power only money can provide. Herman becomes obsessed with the randomness of gambling, where perhaps he could prevail if only he could game the system. That chance comes when he hears of the aged Countess (the opera’s Queen of Spades), who is thought to possess a winning formula: the secret of the three cards.
Herman is almost saved by falling in love with Liza, a young noblewoman engaged to the handsome, honorable Prince Yeletsky. Love involves a real choice between two people; there is nothing random about it. But Herman’s obsession wins out, which drives the disgraced Liza to suicide and Herman to the gambling table, where, having wrested the secret from the Countess, or so he deludes himself, he wins big, then loses everything, and shoots himself.
Employing stark, somewhat abstract sets and costumes that blend realistic and surreal touches, the production plumbs the teeming yet murky emotions of the opera. Mr. Neuenfels draws gripping performances from a strong cast. The tenor Brandon Jovanovich brings heroic vocal heft and tormented intensity to Herman. The mix of earthy colorings and vulnerability in the singing of soprano Evgenia Muraveva are ideal for Liza. She is a gambler too, in that she rejects a safe life with an adoring prince to take a chance on passion with the desperate Herman, which turns out to be a bad bet. The baritone Igor Golovatenko makes a noble, rich-voiced Yeletsky. The renowned mezzo-soprano Hanna Schwarz, at 74, still claims the stage and sings with dramatic urgency as the faded Countess.
As usual, Mr. Neuenfels’s interpretive slants come through the most in the way he lumps groups of people together during episodes with chorus. In the opening scene some young boys are rolled out in cages, like pets, until they emerge wearing matching silvery uniforms and wigs: They are being groomed to become soldiers, the staging touch emphasizes. The rowdy children are tended to by chortling nannies in fluffy dresses who have bulging breasts, ready for nursing, hanging from their necks. If obvious, the images are certainly theatrical.
The Vienna Philharmonic sounded glorious under the dynamic conducting of Mariss Jansons. And the impressive choristers proved ready to follow an imposing director wherever he wanted to take them dramatically.