Vladimir Ashkenazy and Stuart Skelton on Tchaikovsky’s supernatural riddle.

“O Lord!” wrote Modest Tchaikovsky to his composer brother in 1888. “Had you been writing music for this libretto, I would have been scribbling ten times as enthusiastically.” The libretto in question was for an operatic adaptation of Pushkin’s short story Pikovaya Dama (The Queen of Spades), commissioned by Moscow’s Director of Imperial Theatre, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, and which – despite attempts by Modest to interest his brother in the project – was currently in the hands of a lesser composer, one Nikolai Klenovsky. Tchaikovsky’s last opera, The Enchantress, had flopped, and he assured Modest that any attempt by him at a Queen of Spades would have mediocre results: the subject simply did not excite him.

That was 1888, however, and by the end of 1889, the composer’s outlook had changed. The collaboration between Klenovsky and Modest Tchaikovsky had evidently petered out, and Tchaikovsky’s own interest in the scenario had intensified. Klenovsky, he wrote to a friend, had “not written a thing”, and thus, spurred by an urge to “flee” from concert engagements, Tchaikovsky had agreed not only to undertake the commission, but to execute it at fairly high speed: the opera was slated for the Mariinsky Theatre’s next season, just 12 months later.

A flurry of activity followed. Tchaikovsky decamped to Florence in January of 1890 and began work immediately, his mania to compose almost outrunning Modest’s ability to supply the necessary scenes. “For God’s sake do not waste time,” he wrote to his brother, “otherwise I could run out of text”. He finished composing the opera in just 44 days. His piano score was completed and dispatched to Moscow by the beginning of April and two months later, the fully orchestrated score followed. Writing again to Modest on the day he completed his sketches, Tchaikovsky defended the speed with which he had worked. “Laroche [a music critic] wrote to me that he and Nápravník [who would conduct the opera’s premiere] grumble that I have finished so quickly… I can not work anything other than quickly. But the speed does not mean at all that I have written the opera in an off-hand way… The trick is to write with love.”

Tchaikovsky’s earlier indifference to the subject had clearly evaporated. His collaboration with Modest had been intense and reciprocal, with the composer reworking much of the libretto himself, writing his own texts and incorporating extracts from other Russian authors. He had also developed a strong attachment to Hermann, the opera’s tortured anti-hero, and reported having cried upon setting the character’s death scene. Vladimir Ashkenazy, who will conduct the Sydney Symphony’s concert performances of The Queen of Spades in December this year, sees shades of the composer’s own troubled existence in his opera: “Tchaikovsky was always very open-hearted and communicative in his music, but the tragic elements of his life and personality can be clearly seen in his compositions; particularly in his Sixth Symphony, in some parts of Manfred and in The Queen of Spades. The Queen of Spades is a dark piece of music based on a dark story – in fact it is one of the darkest works that Tchaikovsky composed.”

The dark story, a novella by Pushkin published in 1834, is that of a young military officer, Hermann, who intends to make his fortune at the card table and becomes obsessed by a tale he hears of three winning cards. These are reputedly known only to an elderly countess, and Hermann is compelled first to manipulate the affections of the countess’s young ward, Liza, and then to confront the lady herself, who dies of fright before revealing the cards. Her ghost subsequently appears to Hermann and tells him the secret cards – three, seven, ace – but when he plays them, the ace in his hand has inexplicably become the Queen of Spades, and seems to wink at him. Ruined and in terror, Hermann is committed to an asylum, and Lizavyeta, we are told in a brief epilogue, marries another man. 

With its stormy passions, ghostly apparition and ready-made ball and gambling scenes, Pushkin’s story was already rich with operatic potential, but the brothers Tchaikovsky nevertheless made some significant changes to ready it for the lyric stage, adding, Ashkenazy explains, “the necessary dramatic elements into the libretto to ensure that the opera is convincingly presented on the stage”. Unlike his literary counterpart, whose entanglement with Lizavyeta is calculated solely to bring him closer to the Countess, Tchaikovsky’s Hermann is genuinely in love with Liza and it is this twin obsession – winning money to make him a suitable candidate for her hand – which drags him inexorably into madness and ultimately suicide. Liza, for her part, is elevated from impoverished ward to the granddaughter of the Countess and the betrothed of Prince Yeletsky (another of the opera’s additions) who offers a gentle, dignified contrast to the Heathcliff-esque Hermann.

With nine operas already under his belt, including Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky had a keenly honed theatrical instinct, and it was at his insistence that one of the opera’s most memorable scenes, a midnight assignation at the Winter Canal between Liza and Hermann which culminates in the former’s despairing suicide, was added. The audience, he insisted, would need to know Liza’s fate. There was also some contention over Hermann’s final aria, a crazed Brindisi. In mid-1890, at the urging of Nikolai Figner, the tenor who would create the role, Tchaikovsky (“with great bitterness” as he told conductor Eduard Nápravník) transposed the aria from B-major to A-major for the second edition of the piano score. In October, both Figner and Modest Tchaikovsky were still pushing for changes to the scene, and the third edition saw the addition of an extra bar in each verse – presumably to allow the tenor extra breathing room – and another change in key, this time to B-flat.

The high tessitura of Hermann’s music, combined with the length and intensity of the role, have given it a daunting reputation, but Australian heldentenor Stuart Skelton (left), who will sing Hermann with the Sydney Symphony, insists Tchaikovsky’s vocal writing is rewarding nonetheless. “He has a very melodious and very Russian way of writing for the voice – it’s incredibly moving and quite lyrical, even when the tessitura is, shall we say, not ideal.” Performers today have a choice of keys for that notorious final aria, and Skelton says he’s up to the challenge of the higher key if Maestro Ashkenazy prefers it. “If it’s what Tchaikovsky envisioned, then I’m more than happy to concede that he knows best!”

Ashkenazy agrees that Tchaikovsky’s “melodic gift was beyond comparison in whichever genre he chose to write in”. As one of his generation’s greatest pianists, and subsequently as an acclaimed conductor, Ashkenazy is well-versed in the composer’s instrumental and orchestral works, and while his involvement with his operas has not been so extensive, Tchaikovsky’s idiom, he says, remains the same: “I still feel very comfortable and ‘at home’ in the larger soundscape of his operatic works.”

The soundscape of The Queen of Spades is a particularly varied and evocative one. Pushkin’s novella has a more or less contemporary setting, complete with references to Napoleon, but the opera moved the action from the 19th century to the reign of Catherine the Great. Tchaikovsky’s affinity for Classical modes of composition, and love of Mozart, were already well established, most notably in his Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra in 1877, and this 18th-century setting for The Queen of Spades offered him further scope to indulge his predilection. His score incorporates both a polonaise by Joséf Kozlowski (1757-1821) and a passage from André Grétry’s 1784 opera Richard Coeur-de-lion, sung wistfully by a nostalgic Countess; but it is in the Act II Intermezzo that the composer’s Rococo leanings come most vividly to the fore. In an extended Pastorale which draws upon both Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C (K 503) and his String Quartet (K 406), Tchaikovsky creates an affectionate homage and masterful pastiche, whose effervescence is tellingly at odds with the often cheerless score which surrounds it.

“There is almost nothing in this piece that is happy, cheerful or receptive,” Ashkenazy admits, “and almost all of it is uncomfortable and intense. The parts that do sound occasionally cheerful are not related to the main story.” Yet what he describes as the opera’s “brooding intensity” is hardly anathema to opera lovers, who tend to thrive upon doomed love and fractured psyches, both of which The Queen of Spades offers in abundance. Hermann is, from his first entrance, a tormented figure whose physical and psychological disintegration seem predestined (parallels can be drawn here, Skelton suggests, with another ill-fated tenor, Britten’s Peter Grimes) and although his and Liza’s love is sincere, both text and music are infused with violent melancholy: neither character is remotely happy to be in love. Yeletsky’s aria, one of the opera’s most frequently excerpted numbers, is the closest The Queen of Spades comes to romance – but since we know his feelings to be so thoroughly unrequited, its taste is bittersweet at best.

The Queen of Spades premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg in December of 1890, and was an immediate success, although, as Ashkenazy points out, “some critics at the time thought it less communicative and less accessible than the more harmonious Eugene Onegin”. Its Kiev premiere, 12 days later, was equally acclaimed, as was its first appearance at the Bolshoi Theatre the following year, and the opera’s popularity persisted into the next century, accruing some remarkable conductors along the way: in 1904, Rachmaninov conducted it at the Bolshoi, while its Vienna State Opera and Metropolitan Opera premieres (in 1902 and 1910 respectively) were both conducted by Gustav Mahler. Today The Queen of Spades is second only to Eugene Onegin in terms of its popularity and place among the standard operatic repertoire.

The triumph of The Queen of Spades must surely have buoyed the fragile spirits of Tchaikovsky, who, just two months earlier, had received a letter from Nadezhda von Meck, his longtime patron, unexpectedly ending both her financial support and the intimate correspondence the pair had maintained for more than a decade. Within a year, he had commenced what would be his final opera, Iolanta, and two of his best-known works, The Nutcracker and his Symphony No 6, the Pathétique, still lay ahead of him. Yet Tchaikovsky’s life had entered its own final act. In November of 1893, nine days after conducting the premiere of the Pathétique, he was dead, officially from cholera, although rumours of suicide persist to this day.

It was a tragic and chillingly operatic end for the man who had identified so strongly with one of his own darkest creations. “I should have liked to tell you confidently that the music of The Queen of Spades has turned out well,” he wrote to Vsevolozhsky, “but I am apprehensive, as experience shows that during the initial period after a new child is born its creators feel a passion towards it that is exaggerated and often far from reality. I can only say that I wrote with delight and selflessness, and put my whole soul into this work.”

The Sydney Symphony performs The Queen of Spades in concert on Dec 1 & 3. View event details here.