27 juni 2009
The Queen of Spades, Op. 68 (Russian: Пиковая дама, Pikovaya dama) is an opera in 3 acts (7 scenes) by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to a Russian libretto by the composer’s brother Modest Tchaikovsky, based on a short story of the same name by the poet Alexander Pushkin. The premiere performance took place in 1890 in St. Petersburg, Russia. For a period the opera was commonly performed in French under the still recognized title Pique Dame. Nowadays, the opera is almost exclusively sung in Russian.
Time: The close of the 18th century
Place: St. Petersburg, Russia
In a sunny, summer garden, people are strolling. Officers Surin and Chekalinsky share impressions about the strange behaviour of their friend Hermann. He spends time in the gambling house, but does not tempt fate at all. Hermann enters with Colonel Tomsky. Hermann opens his soul to him, explaining that he is passionately in love, but he does not know his loved one’s name. They are joined by several officers. Prince Yeletsky tells of his upcoming marriage. ”This beautiful angel has given consent to combine her destiny with mine!” Hermann is horrified to learn that the prince’s fiancée is the object of his passion.
The countess and her granddaughter enter. Both women are hypnotised by the sight of the unfortunate Hermann. Tomsky tells the story of the countess who, as a young Moscow ”lioness” had lost all her fortune playing the card game Faro. By bribing Count Saint-Germain with sexual favors, she learned the secret of three winning cards, and won back her fortune. She told her husband the secret, and later a handsome young man. That night, a phantom came to her and said that she would receive a mortal blow from the third one she told.
Hermann listens to the story with great interest. Surin and Chekalinsky mockingly suggest that he find out the old woman’s secret at cards. A thunderstorm rumbles. The garden empties. Only Hermann meets the raging elements openly. He exclaims that while he is alive, he will never let the prince have his beloved.
At sunset in Lisa’s room, the girls play music, trying to amuse their friend, who is sad despite her engagement to the prince. When alone, she reveals that she loves the mysterious stranger, in whose eyes she saw the fire of scorching passion. Suddenly, Hermann appears on the balcony. He has come to see her one last time before killing himself. His ardour carries away Lisa. A knock at the door interrupts him. Hiding, Hermann is excited by the appearance of the old countess, who looks like a terrible phantom of death. Unable to hide her feelings anymore, Lisa submits to Hermann.
A rich dignitary is hosting a ball. Yeletsky, disturbed by the coldness of Lisa, assures her of the immensity of his love. Chekalinsky and Surin, wearing masks, scoff at Hermann, asking him whether he will be the third to learn the secret of the three cards. Their words spark his imagination.
Pastoral Intermezzo: The Sincerity of the Shepherdess
After the completion of the intermezzo, Hermann sees the Countess. When Lisa gives him the keys to her bedroom which connects to the countess’s, Hermann thinks it is an omen. Tonight he will learn the secret of the three cards, and with it, win Lisa’s hand.
Hermann hides in the bedroom of the countess. She enters. She is unhappy with the customs of the day, and with melancholy recalls the past. She falls asleep in an armchair. Hermann reveals himself, begging her to reveal the secret of the three cards, but the countess, who has grown dumb with fright, says nothing. When Hermann threatens her with a pistol, she dies of shock. Blaming Hermann for the death, Lisa sends him away. In this scene we hear the ancient French song ”Vive Henri IV” as well as the beginning of ”Je crains de lui parler la nuit” (Laurette’s Aria) from Grétry’s Richard Coeur-de-Lion.
Hermann is in a barracks. He reads Lisa’s letter, forgiving him, and asking him to meet her on the quay. In his imagination, he sees pictures of the old woman’s funeral. Doleful singing is heard. The phantom of Countess appears in a white funeral shroud. ”Rescue Lisa, marry her, and the three cards will win in succession. Remember! The three! The seven! The ace!”
Lisa awaits Hermann, full of doubt. At midnight, she is finally relieved when Hermann appears. But Hermann, after confessing his love, is possessed with the idea of using the secret of the three cards. When she refuses to go with him to the gambling house, he pushes her away and leaves. Lisa, realizing that the inevitable has happened, throws herself into the river.
The players are gambling in the casino. Tomsky entertains them with a playful song. Hermann enters and wins two large stakes, betting on the three and the seven. Prince Yeletsky, looking for revenge, is the only one who will cover the third bet. Instead of the expected ace, Hermann is dealt the queen of spades. He sees the features of the old dead woman on the card, whose smile seems to be mocking at him, and kills himself. With his dying breath he asks for the Prince’s pardon and sees Lisa’s ghost, who forgives him.
Hermann – tenor
Count Tomsky – baritone
Prince Yeletsky – baritone
Chekalinsky – tenor
Surin – bass
Chaplitsky – bass
Narumov – bass
Master of Ceremonies – tenor
Countess – mezzo-soprano
Liza – soprano
Polina – contralto
Governess – mezzo-soprano
Masha – soprano
Boy-Commander – spoken
Prilepa – soprano
Milovzor – contralto
Zlatogor – baritone
Chorus, silent roles: Nursemaids, governesses, wet-nurses, strollers, children, gamblers
This Russian is not uncommon on the world stages, even if it’s of course a lot more popular in Russia and in the former Sovjet parts of the world. Many of the arias are staples on concerts for singers from Eastern Europe, but I can’t say that I’ve heard an of them until I had to find them out for this post. The Royal Opera her premiered a production of it this spring, that was commended more for the staging than for the singers. It claimed to have the most realistic sheep ever taking part in an opera performance.
Anyway here are a couple of arias: Prince Yelevtski’s aria from act II, Hermann’s aria from act III (sounds very Russian to me), and finally here’s the duet between Liza and Polina.
I also think this is a clip worthy of mentioning: it’s Dmitri Hvorostovsky singing Yeletski’s aria at the 1989 Cardiff World Singing Competition. He won the competition ahead of Bryn Terfel, who won the Lieder prize, and was the start of both their ways to stardom in the operatic world.