TCHAIKOVSKY The Queen of Spades (Jansons)
Tchaikovsky identified closely with Herman, the anti-hero of his opera The Queen of Spades (Pique Dame), whose gambling addiction leads to the deaths of his mistress, Lisa, and the old Countess, whom he threatens into revealing the secret of ‘the three cards’. The opera culminates in the deranged gambler’s own suicide. ‘Wept terribly when Herman gave up the ghost’, the composer wrote in his diary. In his revelatory production for Dutch National Opera, heading to Covent Garden next season, Stefan Herheim takes the theme of Tchaikovsky the outsider as his main focus. Alienated from society on account of his homosexuality, Tchaikovsky’s mysterious death – contracting cholera from drinking iced water, possibly with the intention of taking his own life – is also referenced in a staging that places the composer squarely centre stage.
I adored this staging when I saw it in Amsterdam and love it no less on revisiting it via Blu-ray. Superimposing the composer’s biography on to arguably his greatest opera works ingeniously. Tchaikovsky himself becomes the central character, here played by Vladimir Stoyanov, who sings the role of Prince Yeletsky, Lisa’s intended. Like Tchaikovsky’s own marriage to the infatuated Antonina Milyukova, it’s a match we know is doomed from the first scene, where we see the composer recovering from a sexual encounter for which he’s paid a cackling Herman a fistful of roubles. With the arrival of the Empress, Tchaikovsky/Yeletsky is publicly humiliated, kissing the hand of Catherine the Great only for it to turn out to be Herman in drag.
Tchaikovsky’s adoration of Mozart also features, the Daphnis and Chloë pastiche featuring characters costumed as a feathered Papageno and Papagena, a giant music-box birdcage a metaphor for the composer’s entrapment. Herheim has Tchaikovsky everywhere – the male chorus are clones, Polina wears an identical grey flannel suit as a youthful composer and even Herman seems a straggly-haired, middle-aged version. Lisa is drowned by the chorus dousing her with their glasses of iced water before reappearing to Herman at the end, a black-winged guardian angel. Tchaikovsky, let’s remember, himself attempted suicide by wading into an icy Moscow river.
Musically, standards are extremely high, led by Mariss Jansons’s inspired presence in the pit. The Royal Concertgebouw play Tchaikovsky to the manner born, impassioned strings and glowing brass to the fore. Misha Didyk’s baritonal Herman sounds stronger on disc than he did in the house and he acts the unhinged gambler convincingly. Svetlana Aksenova sings a steely Lisa, a touch hard-edged but fully committed to the drama. Alexey Markov is luxury casting as Tomsky, dispatching a terrific Ballad of the Three Cards, while Larissa Diadkova is remarkable as the Countess – singing rather than growling her role. Stoyanov’s performance as Yeletsky/Tchaikovsky is an acting tour de force. Required to be on stage most of the evening, he acts the role of tortured composer wonderfully, singing Yeletsky’s gorgeous ‘Ya vas lyublyu’ with smooth legato. The only (tiny) drawback with the filmed performance is that, up close, it’s all too easy to spot when Stoyanov is briefly substituted out for actor/pianist Christiaan Kuyvenhoven to provide onstage accompaniment for Polina’s song. Otherwise, this is a terrific memento of a provocative but enthralling production.