While Eugene Onegin is his most popular opera, The Queen of Spades may be Tchaikovsky’s best. In it, the composer of The Nutcracker and Swan Lake tackles Pushkin’s eerie Russian ghost story.
If any composer embodies the essence of “Russianness,” it is Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky, whose music often evokes his country’s landscape and is characterized by its tunefulness, sentiment, bombast and grand passions. While he shared a devotion to Russia’s folk heritage that was popular among his contemporaries, an outward looking fascination with western European music was key in his development. His extensive travels earned him wide acclaim. Late in his career in 1891, he conducted the inaugural concert of what was to become Carnegie Hall in the United States. There, he wrote back to his brother Modest, “I am a much more important person here than in Russia.”
Today he is mainly remembered for his numerous symphonies and ballets, but the turbulence of his extraordinary life is most vividly reflected in his operas to which he devoted more of his time than any other genre. The two most successful of his 11 operas, Eugene Onegin (seen at DMMO in 2012 and pictured below) and The Queen of Spades, remain in the repertory today, though opportunities to see the latter are much less common. Through it, he brilliantly displays his obvious admiration for, and understanding of, the genius of Mozart, Wagner and especially Georges Bizet, whose Carmen he desperately loved.
An opera that explores extremes of mood and color, The Queen of Spades is an excellent example of great literature that is enhanced when set to great music. Pushkin’s story tells of a young officer in love with Lisa, the granddaughter of an aged countess who is rumored to hold the secret of winning at cards. The officer, Gherman, becomes obsessed with this secret and spirals into addiction and madness trying to learn it. With the role of the Old Countess, Tchaikovsky creates one of the most theatrical and terrifying characters in Russian opera—making it a perfect vehicle for the venerable Joyce Castle (pictured below).
Set in the later years of the reign of Catherine the Great in imperial St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky’s skillful maneuvering between the most refined to the most harrowing of scenes is breathtaking. Tchaikovsky keeps his principal characters just shy of the boiling point as the cards guide them to their ultimate doom (not unlike Carmen), all the while evoking the gilded Rococo style of Catherine the Great and the effervescent musical world of Mozart. This juxtaposition of intense emotion and delicate, archaic music is the dramatic principle of The Queen of Spades.
In his own time, many considered it his finest opera and Tchaikovsky himself wrote to his brother before the opera’s 1880 premiere, “Unless I’m terribly mistaken, this opera is a masterpiece.” Indeed, the wider public shared his view and soon it became his most performed opera. At long last this fascinating score will be heard for the first time at Des Moines Metro Opera in the Company’s second foray into Russian repertory.