The Strange Countess

Peter Tschaikowsky’s Opera
“The Queen of Spades”

(Photo: Alis Photo)

The ninth of Tchaikovsky’s ten operas finds the Russian composer at the very pinnacle of his art. The Queen of Spades is a tale of love, jealousy and money in which gambling at cards becomes an obsession. After fully staged performances at the Easter Festival in Baden-Baden, Kirill Petrenko is conducting two concert performances in Berlin in April 2022.

Unlucky at cards, lucky in love? For Hermann, the army captain in Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades, these are not mutually exclusive alternatives, for he wants to be lucky both at cards and in love. A regular at the gaming tables in the casino, he even believes that the one is a prerequisite for the other and that if he wins at cards, the beautiful Lisa will fall into his arms.

After all, how could an impoverished burgher’s son hope to win over a young female member of the Russian aristocracy if not with money? Unfortunately Hermann fails miserably in his attempt to achieve what is simply impossible: not only does he succumb to his addiction to gambling, he also begins to believe in mysterious powers, in addition to which he causes the death of Lisa’s grandmother, betrays the woman he loves and finally drives her to take her own life before he too commits suicide. What are we to make of a hero like this?

Complete identification

Tchaikovsky loved his hero and admired his dubious character more than any other of his operatic figures: “When I got to the death of Hermann and this concluding chorus, I was so sorry for Hermann that I began to sob. This continued for some time and turned into a light bout of hysteria, of the most pleasant kind,” Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother on 3/15 March 1890.

“As I had never sobbed over the fate of a hero of mine before, I tried to understand the reason for it. It appears that Hermann was not just a subject about which to compose this or that music, but a real living person whom I liked.” As depicted by Tchaikovsky, Hermann is entirely the composer’s own creation. He has moulded him as he needed to in order to put himself in the right mood to write his opera, and this would work only if he placed himself in Hermann’s shoes and identified with him completely.

This psychological profile had little to do with the Hermann that we find in Tchaikovsky’s source, Alexander Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades, which dates from 1833. Here there are two distinct sides to the character: to the outside world he presents a picture of ambition and assiduousness, of self-discipline and the desire to conform – in a pointed aside Pushkin mentions that Hermann has German roots.

But Hermann is inwardly conflicted, his soul full of hidden depths. With his junkie’s addiction to gambling, he spends every evening in St Petersburg’s salons where, trembling with desire, he follows events at the gaming tables, while never daring to place a bet. This changes when he hears that an old Countess knows the secret of three cards that unfailingly win.

Hermann now stakes everything on discovering what this formula for success may be. It is for this reason – and for this reason alone – that he approaches Lisa, who in Pushkin’s account is the Countess’s foster child. Love plays no part in his actions here. Indeed, he even considers offering himself to the eighty-seven-year-old Countess as her lover.

Fate takes its course and Pushkin’s Hermann ends up in a madhouse. Lisa, too, remains alive in this version of events. As Pushkin succinctly informs his readers at the end of his narrative, “Lizaveta Ivanovna married a very pleasant young man; he is in the civil service somewhere and is possessed of a decent fortune”.

Peter Tschaikowsky
(Photo: akg-images)

Malicious irony

How prosaic! Indeed, Pushkin’s short story left Tchaikovsky cold. “A subject like The Queen of Spades doesn’t move me, and working on it would leave me cold and indifferent,” he observed in the early months of 1888. Fortunately he could turn to his brother Modest, who the previous year had already drafted a scenario based on Pushkin’s narrative for the composer Nikolai Klenovsky, but Klenovsky had abandoned the project.

Only when the director of the St Petersburg Imperial Theatre approached the Tchaikovsky brothers in 1889 and pointed them in the direction of The Queen of Spades did Modest dust down his earlier draft, but it needed all of his powers of persuasion to break down his brother’s resistance since Tchaikovsky felt discouraged by Pushkin’s malicious irony, by the distance that the writer had put between himself and his characters and by his brutal view of society.

But art is free and Pushkin had been dead for over fifty years, with the result that the brothers set about fearlessly adapting the narrative and effectively turning its psychological insights on their head. Tchaikovsky was a Romantic through and through. He believed in love and in deep and honest emotions, with the result that his first overriding thought was that Hermann must be a genuine lover.

Even in his very first scene, Tchaikovsky has him admit that he is hopelessly in love and that he has lost his heart to a beautiful stranger whose name he does not even know. But this dilemma is quickly resolved.

Peter Tschaikowsky (rechts) mit seinen Brüdern Modest und Anatoli und N.D. Kondratjew, 1875
(Photo: akg-images)

Almost at once Tchaikovsky – in his role as deus ex machina – introduces us to this mysterious woman, who is called Lisa and who enters, unfortunately for Hermann, on the arm of her fiancé, Prince Yeletsky. A member of the St Petersburg court, Yeletsky has absolutely nothing to do with Pushkin but is an invention of Modest and Peter Tchaikovsky, owing his entire raison d’être to dramaturgical considerations.

Great love must be won in the face of resistance, resistance that is personified in the opera in the figure of a rival.

Lisa sees little in Yeletsky but feels all the more attracted to her admirer since he worships her and casts ardent glances in her direction – all of this merely serves to stoke the fires of the following tragedy.

That same evening, Hermann appears outside the window to Lisa’s room, leading to a love scene and to a thrilling duet with an ecstatically soaring theme.

A disastrous marriage

Can music lie? Not in Tchaikovsky’s case! When Hermann takes Lisa in his arms with the words “My goddess! Angel of heaven!”, there is no doubt that he is completely sincere. There is no trace here of Pushkin’s sense of calculation. Tchaikovsky himself knew only too well that calculation would achieve nothing.

In 1877, afraid that his homosexuality would become public knowledge, he had married his pupil Antonina Milyukova for entirely strategic reasons, plunging him into a serious psychological crisis. After only a few weeks his disastrous experiment in marriage had driven him to make an attempt on his own life.

His preference for men was not socially acceptable, indeed homosexuality was a punishable offence in tsarist Russia and could have resulted in his exile. He regarded these feelings as an expression of Fate, which he defined in a commentary on his Fourth Symphony – the first of three such symphonies about Fate – as a force “which hangs above the head like the sword of Damocles, unwaveringly, constantly poisoning the soul”.

Tchaikovsky’s operatic double, Hermann, is overwhelmed by the “unfathomable workings of providence” and is forced to submit to his fate. It is clear to him that as a middle-class officer he is not in the same league as Lisa but he hopes to be able to make good this lack of social status by becoming rich, hence his obsession with gambling.

It so happens that Lisa is the granddaughter of the old Countess, about whom his friend Tomsky has told him a number of astonishing things. She had once been fêted in Paris as “the Venus of Moscow” and as the “queen of gambling” and knows the secret of the three cards that guarantee success:

“Tri karty, tri karty, tri karty!” Even at the mere mention of this fateful winning hand in Tomsky’s Ballad, Tchaikovsky underlays the words with one of those descending melodic lines that are to turn into Hermann’s fate motif, much like the strident trumpet fanfare that Tchaikovsky used in his Fourth Symphony as an expression of his own fate.

Strange visions

From now on Hermann is obsessed by only one thought: he has to solve the riddle of the three cards. This explains why he persuades Lisa to give him the key to the Countess’s bedroom, where he lies in wait for the old woman and where she dies of fright when he threatens her with a pistol. But with that she takes her secret to the grave. Or perhaps not?

Back at his barracks Hermann, now completely distraught, is visited by strange visions. He sees the dead Countess before him, winking and whispering: “Three, seven, ace.” Hermann believes that this is the winning formula and unceremoniously abandons the deeply disillusioned Lisa, who regards her lover’s actions as an act of betrayal and takes her own life by leaping into the River Neva, a move that reflects Tchaikovsky’s own suicide attempt, when he had tried to kill himself by throwing himself into the icy waters of a Moscow river in 1877.

But Hermann has no idea what is going on with Lisa and has thoughts only for the casino, where he bets on the number three – and wins. He then bets on the number seven and is once again triumphant. With his third bet only his mortified rival Yeletsky is willing to stand his ground. “Ace,” Hermann demands – and loses. It is the Queen of Spades that is drawn. It is all over, Hermann is left with no alternative but to shoot himself. Fate has completed its trail of destruction.

Tchaikovsky’s opera moves its audiences because it makes no attempt to denounce its characters’ weaknesses. Instead, it takes a compassionate view of them and provides them with human motivation. Of course, his wonderful music also plays a vital part in this process. The ninth of his ten operas finds Tchaikovsky at the very pinnacle of his art, an art, moreover, that proves astonishingly varied, with a range that extends from folksong-like romances and dance songs to a Rococo pastoral play in the Ball Scene and from reminiscences of an eighteenth-century opéra comique to the blackest of orchestral sonorities, which lay bare the darkest depths of the human soul at the opera’s key dramatic moments. At times Tchaikovsky strikes a note of tender lyricism, at others he risks impassioned outbursts.

He reveals complete mastery of the style needed to reproduce an elegant conversational tone as well as the art of eerie expression in the great scene with the old Countess. At this point, he admitted, “I experienced such terrific fear, horror, and violent alarm that surely the audience will have to share that experience”.

Susanne Stähr

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