Major Operas | The Queen of Spades by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky | High Romantic

The Queen of Spades, based on another story by Pushkin, was Tchaikovsky’s penultimate opera and one in which western influences were particularly evident. It was first produced at the Maryinsky Theatre in St Petersburg on 19 December 1890.

However, 20 years passed before it was staged at the Metropolitan Opera, New York on 5 March 1910 and another five before it was premiered in London on 29 May 1915. In 1876, when Tchaikovsky was visiting Paris, he saw a performance of Bizet’s Carmen and became entranced by its tuneful, graceful music.

Three years later, echoes of Carmen went into The Queen of Spades and so did the style of another composer Tchaikovsky greatly admired – Mozart. Mozart’s elegant music was recalled in Tchaikovsky’s recreation of St Petersburg in the refined Francophile days of the Empress Catherine the Great. Tchaikovsky was obsessed with the inexorable workings of fate and how helpless mere mortals can be when faced with its inevitability; this was a feature shared by Carmen and The Queen of Spades. In the closing scenes of The Queen of Spades, Tchaikovsky borrowed from Wagner by using chromatics to convey a sense of supernatural horror.

Composed: 1890
Premiered: 1890, St Petersburg
Libretto by Modest Il’yich Tchaikovsky and the composer after Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin’s novella

Act I

While children play in the Summer Garden in St Petersburg, Chekalinsky and Surin describe how Hermann watches them every night but never gambles. Hermann admits to Count Tomsky that he has fallen in love with an unknown, but high-born, beauty. The other officers congratulate Prince Yeletsky on his recent engagement, but Hermann sees only bitterness. He is horrified when Yeletsky’s betrothed, Lisa, arrives with her grandmother, the countess. They recognize Hermann as the strange man who has recently been following them. Tomsky tells how the countess came to be known as the ‘Queen of Spades’. To recover her gaming losses in Paris she had given herself in exchange for the secret of three winning cards. Both men she revealed the secret to died and a ghost is supposed to have foretold her death at the hands of the third man who tries to take it. Hermann considers the prospect of winning the secret and Lisa.

Lisa accompanies Pauline at the harpsichord. All her friends join in the dancing and a governess breaks up the party. Lisa begs Pauline not to tell Yeletsky that she is unhappy about the engagement. Left alone, Lisa confides to the night that she is obsessed with Hermann’s mysterious gaze. Hermann appears at the window and pleads for a moment of happiness with her before his imminent death. Lisa cries but does not draw away her hand. As he kisses it the countess is heard from the next room. Hermann hides when the countess tells Lisa to make less noise. He renews his pleas and Lisa finally falls into his arms.

Act II

At a masked ball the officers...

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