The Queen of Spades

Article by Rodney Milnes

Few composers’ reputations have changed over time as much as Tchaikovsky’s.  Fifty years ago he was just the composer of three enormously popular ballet scores, popular mainly because they were packed with wonderful tunes.  Some of his symphonies were popular and for the same reason, though the “big tune” in the Pathétique was thought a bit of a joke by more austere music-lovers.  All of which meant that he wasn’t taken seriously by the critical establishment, which saw him as little better than a movie composer.

Today he is recognised as one of the greatest of musicians, Russia’s first truly professional composer.  We have had the three-volume biography thought to be essential if a composer is to be taken seriously, and countless single volume studies.  Much more has come to be known about him since the fall of the Soviets, who wouldn’t even admit that he was gay.  The earlier picture of him as a tortured outcast who poured his frustration into his music has been replaced by that of a well adjusted man living in a gay subculture that was tolerated far more than the equivalent in Victorian Britain.  Gallons of ink have been spilt about the cause of his tragically early death from cholera, aged only 53, most of the theories being simply preposterous and occasioned initially by his family’s covering-up tale about the glass of unboiled water.  It was largely a matter of class: cholera was a working-class disease, and family and friends were not prepared to admit that he was not above cruising for rough trade.  Enough: Tchaikovsky was bigger than all that, bigger than the man himself.  What could be more telling, more moving than the woman tram-driver in St Petersburg explaining in a TV documentary just how much this man’s music meant to the people of Russia?

And Tchaikovsky’s reputation as an opera composer has changed as well.  Once it was just Eugene Onegin and, occasionally, The Queen of Spades, once managements had got over their initial panic at casting and staging the latter.  Today Mazeppa, an enormously powerful music drama, is inching its way into the repertory: Welsh National Opera has been performing it this spring and summer.  They also gave Iolanta, Tchaikovsky’s exquisite, infinitely touching and psychologically astute last opera.  The Maid of Orleans, his only conventional “grand opera”, tours the world as a vehicle for the immortal Mirella Freni.  His robustly – unexpectedly so – comic fantasy Cherevicki (“The Tsarina’s Slippers“) has proved to be stage worthy and extremely entertaining.  One day someone will tackle the enigmatic Enchantress, a scary study of sexual obsession.  There are boundless riches in Tchaikovsky’s operatic output apart from the two we all know.

Or think we know: The Queen of Spades is changing, too.  Once it was thought of as the last 19th-century grand opera, something of a hangover.  After WNO’s production of six years ago, so probingly conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, it started to look more like the first 20th-century opera, the study of a mentally unstable “outsider” figure that looked forward to Wozzeck and Peter Grimes.  Audiences were made to notice that apart from obvious moments in the big public scenes, the work is very sparingly, very spicily scored, creating a sound-world anticipating Shostakovich rather than looking back to 19th-century opulence.  The more you listen to this music, the more astonishingly modern it sounds.

Of course there is an element of spectacle, which was expected by Ivan Alexandrovich Vsevolozhky, the director of the Imperial Theatres who commissioned the work and wanted a period extravaganza along the lines of the hugely successful Sleeping Beauty.  He didn’t altogether get it.  The opening scene, with its charming homage to Bizet in the children’s chorus, is more opéra comique than grand opera.  (Tchaikovsky saw Carmen in its first run and, unlike most, foresaw its worldwide popularity.)  Only in the ballroom scene are there opportunities for spectacle.  The sung and danced Pastorale divertissement, in which Tchaikovsky sought to pay homage to his beloved Mozart but composed pure Tchaikovsky, is delightful and not irrelevant to the central action, treating as it does of love versus money.  It was often cut in earlier stagings in this country, and it will not be performed tonight: Holland Park is not the place for extravagant song and dance.  Without the Pastorale, the action of the opera is that much more concentrated, relentlessly so you could argue: a psychological drama that grows out of the comfy everyday world of that opening scene and grows ever darker, ever more taut, as it progresses.

“Love versus money” is of course a gross oversimplification.  The Queen of Spades depicts with terrifying precision the disintegration of an already unstable mind, the inability of the protagonist, Herman, to distinguish between fact and fantasy, between his twin obsessions of love for Lisa and his raging desire for wealth and status, between means and ends.  He has his sights on a paradise to be gained, but the conflict between that end and the means of achieving it is too much for his fragile psyche.  Therein lies the main difference between the opera and the novella by Pushkin on which it is based.

It has often been said that Tchaikovsky’s music and his brother Modest’s libretto betray Pushkin’s ironic, detached, almost flippant tone.  Indeed they do, but a novella is a novella and an opera is an opera, especially with the director of the Imperial Theatres breathing down your neck.  You can read Pushkin’s little tale in twenty minutes and spend a lifetime re-reading it: it is a masterpiece.  In it, Lisa is a mousy orphan in the Countess’s household on a measly salary, not her grand-daughter.  Herman is cold, calculating and exploitative, with “the profile of a Napoleon and the soul of Mephistopheles”.  He has no romantic interest in Lisa; she is merely a means to an end.  He is a classic outsider figure, of German descent, in an unfashionable engineers’ regiment and without private means, in contrast to his carefree, wealthy fellow officers.  He has been cruising Lisa for weeks, cruelly awakening the mouse’s romantic interest as a means of gaining access to the Countess.  The end of the story, tossed off by Pushkin in a dozen lines of deliciously detached flippancy, has Herman in room 17 of the Obuhov asylum muttering “three, seven, ace” over and over again, and Lisa marrying a low-grade civil servant and presumably living unhappily ever after.  So, no double suicide, as in the opera.

The Tchaikovsky brothers brought extraordinary skill to their adaptation of this operatically unpromising material.  The composer took what he needed from Pushkin in order to say something about outsiders and their relationship to society, and there may have been an element of personal identification from a gay man who felt himself to be an outsider, even if not to the extent that was once thought.  He and Modest invented the element of the supernatural in Tomsky’s Ballad about the Countess and the three cards that sets Herman‘s imagination off on its fatal journey.  They invented Yeletsky as a Micaëla-style counterbalance to Herman-as-Carmen.  Promoted to the Countess’s grand-daughter, Lisa is far above Herman in social status, nigh-unattainable, but she is in thrall to the “fallen angel” who has been following her around.  Poor, decent Yeletsky, like Micaëla, gets it all wrong in his aria of doglike devotion (words by Tchaikovsky himself, not Modest): doglike devotion is not what Lisa wants or needs from a man.  Like Tatyana, she has been reading far too many romantic novels and is easy prey to her fallen angel.

Yet there are elements of irony in the opera not unworthy of Pushkin.  It is the Countess who orders the balcony door to be shut in the second scene, thus trapping Herman in Lisa’s room and—by her very appearance—reawakening his fantasy about the three cards and thus sealing her own fate.  It is Lisa who invites Herman to her room via the Countess’s, thus sealing both their fates.  There are three false “happy ends” when Herman’s grip on reality seems to be tightening, thanks to Lisa, and all seems to be set fair.

There is near-Pushkin-esque cynicism, too, in the part that Herman’s friends play in his downfall.  Tomsky should know his melancholy friend better than to tempt him with fairy-tale Ballads.  It is Chekalinsky who first plants the idea in Herman’s mind of attaining the secret of the three cards, and it is his friends who tease him sadistically with disembodied voices in the ballroom.  When there is the prospect of a duel between Herman and Yeletsky and the Prince asks Tomsky to be his second, Tomsky accepts without hesitation – absolutely chilling.  When you are in trouble, it is your friends you should look out for, not your enemies.  Very Pushkin.

But the main difference from Pushkin lies in the treatment of Herman himself.  In the novella he is as mad as a snake from the start.  In the opera he isn’t.  At his first appearance we learn in his conventional two-part aria that he is in love, not, surely, in itself a sign of mental instability.  The problem is that Lisa is unattainable socially and financially.  The solution could be Tomsky’s flippant Ballad about the Countess and her three cards, the chance of instant wealth and hence marriage to Lisa.  The much bigger problem is that one part of Herman’s brain starts to believe Tomsky’s fairy-tale, and the tragedy is that that part of his brain wins.  Yet Herman retains vestiges of sanity right up to the scene in his barrack room, when he expresses remorse at his treatment of Lisa.  Up until then the two parts of his mind voice themselves alternately, with the realisation that the secret of the cards is a fantasy followed by pursuit of that fantasy as a means to an end.  Finally, in the canal scene, the fantasy becomes an end in itself when he suddenly ceases even to recognise Lisa.  Perhaps the most chilling evidence of his split personality comes in the ballroom scene, when he sings that when he sees Lisa he will forget all about the cards, and continues with scarcely a pause for breath to thoughts of the riches the cards will bring.

All that is in the words, frightening enough, but add music and it becomes very frightening indeed.  In few operas does music wield its baleful power to such devastating effect.  For a start, the audience has to pinch itself collectively and continually to remind itself that there is no secret of the three cards, that the Countess’s ghost does not appear save in Herman’s fevered imagination.  But Tchaikovsky’s music, especially in those two scenes of unsurpassed Gothic horror in the Countess’s bedroom and Herman’s barrack room, does its successful best to persuade us otherwise, just as it tries to convince us that the Countess is something other than a very ordinary albeit privileged old woman, a crashing snob living in the past.  How often directors must long for two stages and two casts to show us what is actually happening and what is happening in Herman’s mind.  I mean, does Lisa commit suicide, or does Herman merely imagine that she does?  But without such luxuries, Tchaikovsky’s music is left free to draw each member of the audience into Herman’s disturbed mind.

In 1876 Tchaikovsky attended both the first Ring cycle in Bayreuth and a performance of Carmen in its first run, and we know which he preferred—hence his tribute to Bizet in the first scene.  Yet his score for The Queen of Spades is structured symphonically along near-Wagnerian lines, with recognisable motifs recurring and being developed.  Three of these musical ideas are laid out in the Prelude.  First, the tune of Tomsky’s fatal Ballad in innocent, pastoral guise; only later does it gain the power to threaten.  Then, under a hammered dotted rhythm on woodwind, the measured, inexorable step-like tread of the Countess, which will recur regularly in various forms.  Finally, on a bed of warm wind sound, the string tune to which Herman will declare his love to Lisa, an archetypal Tchaikovskian obsessive musical gesture, a repeated phrase climbing through the stave until answered by its continuation as a countermelody while the phrase itself starts again at the bottom on the brass.  Thus are the battle lines laid out.

There are two more musical ideas of vital importance, but they turn out to be one.  In his aria in the first scene Herman tells Tomsky that he is in love, to another archetypal Tchaikovskian theme, a melancholy falling phrase to the words “I do not know her name, nor want to”.  The climax to each verse of Tomsky’s Ballad to the words “Tri karti, tri karti, tri karti” is almost exactly the same.  So the confusion is there in musical terms before it has even occurred to poor Herman: he doesn’t stand a chance.  Nor does the audience, which is unwittingly, subliminally drawn into the confusion.  When, after Herman has literally frightened the Countess to death, this figure is disjointedly hammered out in the postlude to the scene, which of the two concepts does it represent?  Herman is past knowing, and so is the audience.

Throughout the score musical gestures add their own peculiar intensity, most notably in orchestral colour, the use of low woodwind—clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon—to suggest the invisible worm gnawing its way into the bud of Herman’s brain or, more prosaically, the chemical imbalance that robs him of his reason.  This sinister colour is especially associated with the Countess’s step motif, in particular at the moment of the first false “happy end” after Lisa has joyfully accepted Herman’s protestations of love and the Countess “steps” in to fuel Herman’s fantasies.  At the third false “happy end”, coming as late as the scene by the canal, the music almost fools us in the idyllic 9/8 love duet until we notice that the voices are singing alternate phrases, and that when they finally sound together it is in canon, not in unison.  There is scarcely a bar in the opera that does not tell us something we need to know about the cause and the course of Herman’s breakdown.

The knife-edge of that toppling over into madness is surely Herman’s nihilistically jaunty song in the final gambling scene, which is pure opéra comique in form and has curious echoes of Offenbach’s Hoffmann in his Venetian bordello, while the text, with its description of good and evil as old wives’ tales, has an equally strange echo of Iago’s Credo.  There is something peculiarly sinister about this particular music at this particular stage of the opera.

The end of the opera is overwhelming: the suicide, the moment of blinding mental clarity, Herman politely (he is, after all, an officer) asking Yeletsky’s forgiveness, and imagining he hears Lisa forgiving him as he dies.  Then, with all the hushed solemnity of Russian Orthodox liturgy, the chorus of hedonistic officers is shamed into praying for Herman’s soul as the love music shyly climbs, transfigured, to realms of purity and innocence.  Tchaikovsky wrote that he wept while composing that ending.  In the face of such searing human tragedy, it is hard for listeners not to follow suit.