Tuesday May 14th, 7:30 p.m.
PIQUE DAME (Queen of Spades)
An opera in Three Acts (or seven scenes)
by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
to a libretto by the composer's brother Modest Tchaikovsky
based on a short story by Alexander Pushkin
Premièred at the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg on 19 December 1890
A 2016 production from the Dutch National Opera
Direction by Stefan Herheim
Set and Costume Design by Philipp Fürhofer
Lighting Design by Bernd Purkrabek
Choreography by Nadejda L. Loujine
Chorus of the Dutch National Opera
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Mariss Jansons
NOTE: In this production, director Stefan Herheim has chosen to introduce the composer Tchaikovsky as a character in his own opera. It will enhance your appreciation of the performance if you first read the sidebar on the right ('How Herheim stages Tchaikovsky').
Two officers, Tchekalinsky and Surin, meet and discuss their concern for their colleague, Herman. He has a passion for gambling but does not gamble himself, owing to lack of money. They leave as Herman tells his friend Count Tomsky that he is in love with a girl whose name he does not know. As others arrive, he soon finds out that the girl is Liza, the fiancée of Prince Yeletsky. She is accompanied by her grandmother, a countess, who was once a compulsive gambler and is nicknamed the ‘Queen of Spades’.
It is said that the Countess knows the secret of the three cards that always win. She has shared this knowledge with two men in the past and the third to ask her will cause her death. Herman longs to possess the secret, to become rich and marry Liza.
A party of friends are singing and laughing and when they leave, Liza becomes melancholy. She is not sure she will be happy with her fiancée. Herman suddenly appears at the window and declares his love for her.
When the countess enters the room he hides, but as soon as she has gone Liza collapses into his arms.
A masked ball is in progress. Prince Yeletsky sings to please Liza, while Herman dreams of the secret of the three cards.
A musical divertissement ‘The Faithful Shepherdess’ is presented in which a shepherdess (Chloë) prefers a simple shepherd (Daphnis) to a rich lord.
Liza secretly passes Herman the key to the countess’s palace and arranges to meet him that night.
Herman waits for the countess in her room. She returns and prepares for the night. She then sleeps in a chair. Herman comes out of his hiding place and begs the old lady to reveal the secret of the cards. In his excitement he draws a pistol. The shock kills her.
In despair that he can never find the secret, he turns to find Liza at the door. She drives him away bitterly accusing him of preferring cards to her love.
In his room at the barracks, Herman reads a letter from Liza in which she now forgives him for his behaviour. The ghost of the countess appears to him and commands that he marry Liza and the secret combination will be his: THREE – SEVEN - and then ACE.
Liza and Herman are reconciled, but when he makes as if to leave the gambling house, she tries to restrain him. He pushes her aside and in despair she throws herself into the nearby canal and drowns.
In the gambling house, Herman plays his final hand with Yeletsky. The three and the seven have already won, but instead of the ace, he now turns up the Queen of Spades.
Before Herman’s eyes the picture on the card becomes the grinning ghost of the countess and the young man, now utterly deranged, stabs himself.
Vladimir Stoyanov as Yeletsky/Tchaikovsky
and Svetlana Aksenova as Liza
Click here to watch Herheim introducing his production
How Herheim stages Tchaikovsky
The curtain opens on Tchaikovsky recovering from a sexual encounter with Herman, his leading character in the opera. A music box in the form of a caged bird plays 'Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen' from The Magic Flute (Mozart was Tchaikovsky's favourite composer). The tortured composer is compelled to his piano, from where he conducts his children's chorus with his quill. “I hear you are to be married?” Surin (another character) then asks him. Now we realise that Tchaikovsky is Prince Yeletsky, engaged to Liza, the countess' granddaughter. It is a match doomed from the start, as was Tchaikovsky's own marriage to the infatuated Antonina Milyukova (see 'Tchaikovsky: elusive redemption' below).
The composer is manifested elsewhere, everywhere. The male chorus are Tchaikovsky clones, clutching glasses of iced water (from which the composer died after contracting cholera in 1893, three years after Pique Dame premiered). Polina becomes a trouser role in a grey flannel suit – a youthful Tchaikovsky – of which a straggly haired Herman seems a middle-aged version. The old Countess goes to bed in a dress shirt, bow tie dangling from its collar, while Liza – dressed as a governess – strips to reveal she is wearing the same shirt before she 'drowns' in the icy waters poured over her by the chorus. Her demise in the libretto, throwing herself into the canal, reflects another autobiographical moment for the composer, who once attempted suicide by wading into the Moscow river.
As guardian angel with black wings, Liza appears both to Tchaikovsky at the start of the opera and to Herman, forced to shoot himself by the ghost of the countess, at the end. Sometimes, characters do not sing their lines to the recipient intended by the libretto. “You're old, your days are numbered,” sings Herman – not to the countess, but to the composer.
Tchaikovsky is at his happiest invoking his beloved Mozart. The divertissement plays up the parallels, with Daphnis and Chloe in feathered costumes like Papageno and Papagena. Later, the audience participates in the public shaming of his homosexuality, reflected in a giant mirror and raised to its feet by the chorus (in the stalls) to greet Catherine the Great, only to realise the empress whose hand Tchaikovsky kisses is Herman in drag.
Tchaikovsky and his wife Antonina Milyukova
during their honeymoon in 1877
Tchaikovsky: elusive redemption
By marrying, the composer Tchaikovsky tried ‘to redeem his soul from the moral sufferings that have so plagued him throughout recent years’ - as his brother Modest acknowledged. This was a euphemistic reference to the homosexuality of both brothers, which they had admitted to each other at this time. The composer’s marriage was a fiasco, but a brief one from which he fled in desperation. At the same time, he began an intense, long-distance friendship with an older woman, Nadezhda von Meck, who became his patron. Tchaikovsky saw his salvation in music.’‘One could lose one’s senses if music didn’t exist. It’s the most beautiful gift of heaven for a man who errs in the darkness … it is worth living for music’s sake!’ His life was cut short in 1893 when he drank a glass of water infected by cholera - supposedly a deliberate act.
NEXT MEETING: Tuesday June 4
JOAN OF ARC (Verdi)
The Observer described this 2017 La Scala production as "a night to remember"