During its long and eventful history, the dazzling blue-and-gold auditorium of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg has hosted many important and glamorous opening nights. But few were more eagerly awaited than the premiere — on December 19, 1890 — of a new opera by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, The Queen of Spades. This December, the Mariinsky (also known as the Kirov, the name it bore during most of the Soviet era) will present Tchaikovsky's passionate masterpiece at the Kennedy Center, along with another dark tale of love gone wrong, Verdi's Otello. In both operas, naïve and trusting young women (Lisa and Desdemona) perish tragically after their lovers fail them, whether through uncontrolled gambling or jealousy.
When Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) composed The Queen of Spades, he was at the height of his creative powers. Already written were the ballets Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty (performed for the first time at the Mariinsky less than a year earlier), five of his six symphonies, and eight of his ten operas, including Eugene Onegin. Feted in his native country, recognized across the continent and befriended by the great European composers of his day, Tchaikovsky was famous, successful, financially comfortable — and miserable. Success never brought the contentment and emotional fulfillment the chronically insecure composer so craved.
"Oh, how bored I am, how out of sorts I am — and I don't even understand why," he wrote to his brother Modeste in January 1890, just a few days after the triumphant premiere of The Sleeping Beauty. "Work, most likely, will save me from this unbearable frame of mind."
"Work" was The Queen of Spades, to which Tchaikovsky immediately turned his attention after traveling to his favorite destination, Italy, where he settled into a small hotel in Florence in late January. Here, surrounded by the art of the Renaissance and the gentle hills of Tuscany, the composer completed most of his last major opera, one of the recognized Russian theatrical masterpieces of the 19th century.
It was Modeste who urged the composer to write The Queen of Spades. Several years earlier, Modeste had produced a libretto based on Alexander Pushkin's well-known fantastic tale of the same title. (The composer for whom Modeste had prepared the libretto — Nikolai Klenovsky‹later decided against pursuing the project.) Pushkin's story is so slight and economically composed that some critics have called it an anecdote. In St. Petersburg around 1800, Herman, a young officer, is pursuing Lisa, the ward of a wealthy Countess. He does so only because he believes Lisa can help him obtain the Countess's gambling secret. She is rumored to know winning cards in advance. The cautious and cold Herman sees this as an opportunity to strike it rich. Far from loving Lisa, Herman views her as a means to his own selfish end.
The brothers Tchaikovsky turned Pushkin's premise upside down. In the opera, Herman becomes a passionate hero who is already truly, madly, in love with Lisa when the curtain rises, as he sings in his famous first aria, "I do not know her name" ("Ia imeni ee ne znaiu"). And Lisa becomes the Countess's granddaughter; Herman is her social inferior. Obsessed with winning Lisa, but acutely aware of his outsider status, Herman seizes upon the story of the Countess's gambling secret as a solution. By winning at cards, he can become a rich and credible suitor. The libretto also gives Herman a rival for Lisa's affections, the pleasant if boring Prince Yeletsky.
In The Queen of Spades, Tchaikovsky looks at Pushkin's characters through the dark lens of fin-de-siècle gloom. His music deepens the psychological portraits, transforming the two young protagonists into tragic characters more typical of the urban nightmares of Dostoyevsky (another St. Petersburg writer) than of Pushkin's playful, fictional universe. The optimism of triumphant post-Napoleonic Russia that prevailed when Pushkin wrote his story in 1833 is gone. In its place is nervous foreboding, despair and melancholy nostalgia. Communicated in the very first bars of the overture, this sense of approaching catastrophe intensifies throughout, building to a powerful and disturbing climax.
In his tragic operas, including Otello, Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) develops a similar atmosphere of impending doom enveloping his all-too-human characters. We know from one of his letters to Modeste that Tchaikovsky saw a performance of Verdi's Otello in Prague in February 1888, just one year after its premiere at La Scala in 1887. Although Tchaikovsky did not record his detailed impressions, it seems reasonable to suggest that the dynamic music and brilliant dramatic pacing of Otello may have exerted an influence on him when he started composing The Queen of Spades less than two years later.
And yet despite the fact that The Queen of Spades was composed in Italy and is clearly aware of Italian models, it is a profoundly Russian work. In the same letter to Modeste from Prague, another Slavic capital, Tchaikovsky remarks: "It seems that my stay here makes sense, not so much because I am a good composer but because I am a Russian composer."
No other opera in the Russian repertoire is more closely associated with the city and the myth of St. Petersburg than The Queen of Spades. Both Pushkin and Tchaikovsky studied and lived there; both adored this imposing and highly atmospheric capital, the symbol of Russian imperial might and its aspirations for European glory. In the Pushkin story and in the opera, St. Petersburg is such a strong presence that it becomes a character in the action. It was entirely fitting, then, that The Queen of Spades should have received its premiere in the city that inspired its creators.
Even though Tchaikovsky moved to Moscow soon after graduation from the St. Petersburg Conservatory to take a teaching position at the brand new Moscow Conservatory, he remained closely attached to St. Petersburg and frequently visited there throughout his life. And it was in St. Petersburg that Tchaikovsky died (on November 6, 1893), after contracting cholera. Just nine days earlier, his Sixth and last symphony ("Pathétique") had received its premiere at the Philharmonic Hall, stunning the audience with its hushed, requiem-like mood. That Tchaikovsky was buried in St. Petersburg — next to other great figures of Russian culture in the cemetery of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery at the foot of Nevsky Prospect — only served as a final confirmation of his love for this eerie and artistic metropolis.
Harlow Robinson is the author of Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography and the recently published Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood's Russians: Biography of an Image.