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Operapedia: The Queen of Spades 

A few things can trump Tchaikovsky’s despairing drama.
by Henry Stewart 


 

The Basics  

A gambler tries to discover a legendary trick to winning at cards, but, deceived by the ghost of a noblewoman he accidentally scared to death, he loses his fortune and kills himself.

 

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© Summit Entertainment/Photofest 

◀︎ First Performances  

The opera was first performed at the Mariinsky Theatre, in St. Petersburg, in December 1890. It was Tchaikovsky’s penultimate opera, two years before the ravishing one-act Iolanta. (For context, his other still-popular opera, Eugene Onegin, made its debut in 1879.) Almost a year after its world premiere, Queen was heard in Moscow, the city where Tom Hardy, playing an agent of the MGB (precursor to the KGB), hears it many years later, when his character in Child 44 (2015) attends the opera.

 

 

Time and Place  

Maybe it’s not the greatest opera ever written, but it’s definitely the gayest. Not literally, of course—there’s no homosexual love—but subtextually: the hero is bedeviled by a forbidden love (for a woman, outside his class) and by an impossible desire (for a confidential combination of cards). “Tchaikovsky, a tormented and secret homosexual, knew something of illicit obsessions,” Anthony Tommasini writes in Essential Opera. (Queen’s librettist, the composer’s brother, Modest Tchaikovsky, was also gay; biographers disagree over whether their sexual orientation distressed them.) “In a way, like [Gherman], he felt that life had dealt him a bad hand,” Tommasini continues—all queens of spades and no ace.


 

Reactions  

This magnificent work is as strong musically and dramatically as (almost) any nineteenth-century opera, even most by Verdi and Wagner. Don’t believe me? Believe Tchaikovsky! “Either I am greatly mistaken,” he wrote to his brother, “or Queen of Spades is a masterpiece.” He wasn’t; it is—though it still has detractors, from Pushkin purists to what music historian Richard Taruskin calls “puritanical and unimaginative critics,” who “have been slow to recognize … [that it’s] the first and possibly the greatest masterpiece of musical surrealism.”

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© akg-images/Interfoto
 

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© EPA European Pressphoto Agency B.V./Alamy Stock Photo 
 Where It Is This Season

Through spring, there are nine productions in eight cities, from the end of a run of Pikovaya Dama this month at the Mariinsky to a Pique Dame in June at the National Opera in Amsterdam.

 


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◀︎  Hit Tune  

The elderly Countess is practically a cameo—and a favorite role of divas d’un certain âge, who can show off without too much actual singing. Her big moment is “Je crains de lui parler la nuit.” I prefer “Ya Vas Lyublyu,” a touching aria in Act II, in which Prince Yeletsky, Gherman’s romantic rival, expresses the depth of his love for Lisa. It’s a crown jewel of Russian opera, which likely explains its inclusion in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 video game, when Peter Parker creepy-crawls a mansion belonging to Kraven—because Russian super-villains leave only the best Russian opera playing in their lairs, just in case their archnemeses drop by.


Spoiler Alerts   

The source novella, by Alexander Pushkin, had been adapted at least twice before, by Fromental Halévy (uncle to the Carmen librettist Ludovic Halévy and posthumous father-in-law to Carmen composer Bizet) and Franz von Suppé. (Suppé turned it into an operetta called Die Kartenschlägerin, oder Pique Dame; the French-derived transliteration of the original Russian not uncommonly refers to Tchaikovsky’s opera, too.) But even if you’ve read the source material, you might not know where the opera is going, because the Tchaikovsky boys made significant changes: the gambler, Gherman, now honestly loves Lisa (he’s not just using her), and the card-sharp Countess is Lisa’s grandmother, not merely her guardian, all of which adds opera-worthy emotional and social-status tragedies to Pushkin’s grim tale.

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© AKG-Images 

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Something  Completely  Different   

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© Beth Bergman
 
The short intro to the Russian gameshow What? Where? When? begins with the sort of blippity electro theme music you’d expect, set against a CGI owl, but then the backing synths transition to chords that accommodate the first line of Gherman’s Act III “Chto nasha zhizn? Igra!” (What is our life? A game!), an aria that was memorably performed by Plácido Domingo in 1999 and preserved on the Met Opera on Demand app (and YouTube). It comes near Queen’s end, which moved the composer as he wrote it. “I was suddenly overcome by such intense pity for Gherman that I burst out crying,” he wrote to his brother. “I was never before so deeply moved by the sorrows of my hero.”

 

 


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© ABPC/Photofest
 
 In Pop Culture

Tchaikovsky is a music editor’s best friend—excerpts from his ballets and overtures appear constantly in television and film, reaching a peak from Halloween until the New Year, when you can’t get away from his damnable Sugarplum Fairy. But Queen of Spades, not so much. That may not last: The King’s Speech screenwriter David Seidler said in 2012 that the original Pushkin story would be his next project, and he would use Tchaikovsky’s music as the soundtrack. But the IMDb synopsis sounds nothing like the Pushkin (or the Modest!), so who knows? The story has been adapted for film before, including a U.K. version in 1949, starring Anton Walbrook and Edith Evans, that’s a mad hoot.


Surprise Showstopper  ► 

Like Tchaikovsky’s other operas and symphonies, this one is full of melancholy music. I don’t mean there are a few boohoo passages set in minor keys but that an earnest anguish permeates the piece, like so many others by Tchaikovsky, especially during “Da vspomnila…. Podrugi milye” (aka Pauline’s aria), from Act I, a seemingly simple song for a minor character, accompanied only by piano. Damned if it isn’t the sweetest, saddest thing you’ve ever heard; give it to a strong singer, such as Olga Borodina, and it demands an encore, even if just from your mp3 player.

 

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© Beth Bergman
 

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© Beth Bergman 

The Performance We Wish We’d Seen

Until December 27, 1972, Met audiences had never heard The Queen of Spades—or any Russian opera!—in its original language. That night must have been thrilling for any New Yorker who had only ever heard the poetry’s inherent lyricism garbled in German or English translation. Now we’d be outraged if the Met tried to present Tchaikovsky in any tongue but his own; but then, critic Irving Kolodin wrote, “Why Russian? The only conceivable reply is, [Spades] didn’t make the grade … in its previous presentation at the Metropolitan in English, so what was the loss in choosing the ‘original’ Russian? The loss, clearly, was the audience’s, which had even less contact with the story in Russian, however clear, than in English, however mangled.” Thank goodness for the advent of seat-back titles.



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