Opera in 3 acts
Libretto: Modest Tchaikovsky, after Alexander Pushkin’s short story (1833)
First performed: Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia, 19 December (O.S. 7 December) 1890.
Reception: A hit, and one of Tchaikovsky’s two most popular operas to this day.
St. Petersburg, towards the end of the 18th century. Herman, a young soldier, is in love with Liza, the granddaughter of the old Countess – but she is a) engaged, and b) out of his league (an aristocrat).
He learns that the Countess has the secret of winning at cards (learnt from the Comte Saint-Germain, alchemist and philosopher, in Paris).
He vows to get the secret from her, and marry Liza – or die.
A ball, where Liza’s fiancé sings how much he loves her…
and Tchaikovsky writes 15 minutes of cod Mozart. Things go badly. The Countess refuses to give Herman the secret; he threatens her with a pistol, and she dies of a heart attack. Liza finds him standing over the body, gun in hand, and thinks he killed her.
The Countess’s ghost appears to Herman, and gives him the secret (“three…seven…ace”). He meets Liza by the Winter Canal; in her despair, she throws herself off the bridge.
Herman, obsessed by greed, bets on the cards – “three … seven …” Last card: The Queen of Spades. He’s lost everything, so stabs himself.
The Queen of Spades shows what happens when a 30-page short story is turned into a 3-hour opera.
Pushkin’s Hermann is an ambitious young German, cold-blooded and calculating, who makes love to Liza, the Countess’s put-upon poor relation, to get close to the old woman. He goes mad, while she, freed from the domineering dowager, marries a nice young man in the civil service.
Tchaikovsky’s librettist, his brother Modest, takes the story and turns it into opera. Herman becomes a Romantic hero: the sort of chap who’s driven by fate and his passion for Liza, and who swears oaths in the middle of thunderstorms. (An effective close to Act I, sc. 1.) He’s first cousin to Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor. And everything ends tragically.
Nearly all the best parts of the opera come from Pushkin: the opening scene; the death of the Countess; the ghost scene; and the gambling house scene. Liza’s death on the bridge is a Tchaikovsky Bros. interpolation, but it’s a gripping scene, with a memorable repeated phrase in the orchestra. This is understandable; opera traditionally needs a doomed love affair.
To bulk it up, though, the Tchaikovskys pad it to the gills. There’s more than an hour of filler: women sitting around a piano singing salon music, or society guests watching pastiche Mozart. Exciting music drama it isn’t.
Even the character bits don’t do much; Herman and Liza’s duet (Act I, sc. 2) is inert, while “Ya vas lyublyu”, one of the opera’s most famous numbers, is given to the minor rôle of Yeletsky.
As it is, my favorite Tchaikovsky opera, by a long chalk, is The Maid of Orleans.
Bolshoi, 1983, with Vladimir Atlantov, Tamara Milashkina, Elena Obraztsova, and Yuri Mazurok, conducted by Yuri Simonov