A Night at the Opera: Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades at the Metropolitan

March 29, 2011 at 1:28 am (Music, New York City, opera)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky composed The Queen of Spades in the late 1880s. the year 1890 saw the premiere of this opera, which was based on a short story by Alexander Pushkin.  The composer’s brother Modest wrote the libretto.

In this strange story, passions run high – it is Russia, after all – and supernatural elements are deftly woven into the plot. The action opens with  Hermann, an army officer, professing his love for a young woman whose name he has yet to learn. By the time the first act ends, he has  found out that her name is  Lisa, she is the granddaughter of an aged countess – and she is already betrothed, to a fellow officer no less. While Hermann struggles to come to terms with this shattering news, he receives additional intelligence of a curious nature. This has to do with the card games that are such a popular pastime among the young soldiers and aristocrats.  The countess, Lisa’s grandmother, is supposedly in possession of a powerful secret: If three cards are played in a specific order, the player cannot fail to win the hand, and all the money that has been wagered on it. Now at this point, not only is Hermann already in love with Lisa, he also perceives that despite her betrothal to another, she is likewise attracted to him. And so he thinks to himself: why not use this budding liaison to extract this valuable knowledge from the countess?

And so a plot is hatched, a conspiracy that ultimately leads to  disaster. But on the way to this inevitable end, we were treated to much glorious singing, spectacular sets, and gorgeous costumes. God bless the Metropolitan Opera; they never do anything by halves!

Karita Mattila as Lisa and Vladimir Galouzine as Hermann

Dolora Zajick as the Countess, with Vladimir Galouzine

Here are two of the opera’s opulent crowd scenes:

In the scene in this video, Lisa (Karita Mattila) sings a duet with Tamara Mumford, as her sister Pauline. This was a delicate moment, perfectly executed. The audience loved it, with good reason:

I should say that I came to  this opera cold: not only had I never seen it or listened to it, I had no knowledge of the story line. I like to approach a work of art in this manner, sometimes. Of course, loving Tchaikovsky’s music as I do, I was reasonably certain that I would not be disappointed. In the event, it was a thrilling evening. One of the most unexpected delights came in the Second Act. At a masked ball, the guests are treated to an entertainment with a pastoral theme featuring both song and dance. The following video is of the same production we saw, but from an earlier year and with a different cast.

Everything about this interlude is utterly lovable, from the backdrop that is unrolled at the beginning and resembles one of Fragonard’s huge, dreamy canvases, to the music which is such a charming homage to Mozart, a composer Tchaikovsky revered. Aren’t the children wonderful? And those costumes!

Click here for a full summary of the plot of The Queen of Spades. And here are two reviews of this production, one by Anthony Tommasini the New York Times’s wonderfully knowledgeable and articulate music critic, and another from Operaticus, a site new to me.

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On Tuesday I bought this collection of Pushkin’s stories; I wanted to get acquainted with the opera’s source material. It turns out that Tchaikovsky (either Piotr, Modest, or both) altered certain aspects of the original story. To begin with, Lisa is not the countess’s granddaughter. She is her ward, and she gets treated like a cross between a companion and a servant. Oddly, this put me in mind of the ingenue in the recently discussed novel Rebecca,  who, when we meet her in Monte Carlo, is at the beck and call at the imperious and insufferable Mrs. Van Hopper. The countess is similar to Mrs Van Hopper, but worse:

The Countess N. was, of course, not an evil soul, but as the spoiled pet of society, she was capricious; she had grown mean and sunk into a cold egoism, like all old people whose fondest memories lay in the past and to whom the present was alien.

In Pushkin’s story, Lisa is not engaged to anyone, is alone and lonely except for the countess’s incessant demands:

Lizaveta Ivanovna was the martyr of the household.She poured the tea and was scolded for using too much sugar; read novels aloud and was blamed for all the faults of the authors; accompanied the Countess on her rides and was held responsible both for the weather and the condition of the pavement.

And on and no it goes, with nary an expression or gesture of affection toward the poor girl. Oh, she is an easy mark, poor Lisa, and Hermann has every intention of taking advantage of that fact. Love – at least, on his part – doesn’t enter into it at all.

This story is artfully wrought. It’s climax is shattering; the subsequent outcome – at least, for some of the characters – is  downright prosaic, though ironically so. Pushkin’s “The Queen of Spades” serves as yet another reminder of the sheer brilliance of the great Russian writers.

Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin

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