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From page to opera: Pushkin’s tragicomedy and Tchaikovsky’s melodrama in “The Queen of Spades”

“Page to Opera Stage” examines stories – real or fictional, old and new – that have inspired operas, and how those stories have been edited and dramatized to fit a new medium. This month we return to Pushkin and Tchaikovsky with “The Queen of Spades,” where an opera expanded the original short story, dramatically altering the characters and atmosphere in the process.

Although the short and brilliant life and career of Alexander Pushkin cannot be precisely divided, his attention turned more to prose fiction in the years following his verse novel, “Eugene Onegin”. In March 1834, a ghostly short story about gambler’s greed and luck appeared in a St. Petersburg literary journal. “The Queen of Spades” (“Пиковая дама”, “Pikovaya dama”), featuring a novice player (Hermann), a skillful old countess, her ward (Liza), and a happy count (Tomsky), begins and ends around a game of cards. The story of supernatural luck is becoming more and more real, perhaps. It’s a short story perfectly aware of its time – with a throwaway joking line poking fun at the lack of a popular Russian literary tradition before Pushkin’s era.

When Tchaikovsky approached “Queen of Spades,” he was in a much different creative position than with “Eugene Onegin.” Impresario Ivan Vsevolozhsky had written the initial treatment for the opera. Tchaikovsky, his brother Modest, and Vsevolozhsky set about creating a libretto from Pushkin’s prose (Modest generally received primary credit on the text, and he apologetically explained that the “necessary condition” led to some of the drastic changes seen during the adaptation process.)

Dramatically and musically, Tchaikovsky drew inspiration and rebellion from the world of opera. The opening crowd scene and children’s choir are a direct homage to Bizet’s “Carmen”, and the decision to push the opera to the time of Catherine the Great rather than the time of Pushkin and of his contemporaries eschews the tendency of Russian opera towards extreme realism or folk fantasy. .

Tchaikovsky brings the court of Catherine the Great to life as he travels back in time. All is not going well – a sentence about the old countess who sang, in her youth, an aria from the opera “Richard Coeur-de-Lion” by André Grétry in 1784 no longer follows if the opera itself is set in the 1780s. However, there is a strong argument to be made that these idiosyncrasies and anachronisms are not errors, but a continuation of altered reality. When dates and places deliberately do not match, the freedom to explore the boundaries of reality and unreality expands.

“The Queen of Spades”, both a novel and an opera, has long sparked discussions about hidden meanings and symbolism. The novel’s balance between reality and imagination and the narrative’s reliance on hearsay have been variously interpreted, similarly to Henry James’s “The Turn of the Nut”. In the opera, certain symbols are overt, like Tchaikovsky’s three- and seven-syllable motifs illuminating ominous phrases with no direct relation to the fateful cards. Others are found only in stage directions left open to interpretation. The night is constantly referenced, even exaggerated in Pushkin’s text, both in the dialogues and in the stagings.

For this play, however, the words on the page take precedence, regardless of directing decisions or personal readings. Thus, Tchaikovsky’s addition of a love triangle and a reworked ending is the center of attention.

Three is a crowd

One of the biggest and most effective changes Tchaikovsky made to the scene concerns the semi-romance between Hermann and Liza present in the book. The young people’s relationship is over before it begins in Pushkin’s tale. While Liza’s feelings are presented as genuine, Hermann’s main motive is access to the Countess and her secrets, which, of course, backfires horribly. Liza is then absent from the story after dismissing Hermann after the death of the Countess.

Opera, however, ups the ante considerably. When the curtain rises, Liza is engaged to Prince Yeletsky, an invention of the libretto. Hermann is presented as a young officer madly in love with a woman he does not know, who turns out to be Liza. A meeting with her and the Countess in the park prompts Count Tomsky to reveal the supposed secret of the cards to Hermann the Countess. The collision course is therefore set on an impossible romance, not on the game board.

We sometimes see Prince Yeletsky around the gaming tables, but he is otherwise the picture of decorum and devotion. In the audience favorite tune “Я вас люблю”, her noble and self-sacrificing love, even in the face of rejection and jealousy, is a great relief for Hermann.

Liza’s rejection of her aristocratic suitor – notably one so pure-hearted – in favor of the mysterious lower-class stranger immediately adds a new facet to her doomed attraction.

A dangerous intimacy pervades Hermann’s and Liza’s interactions onstage that shines through in their language, their dexterity and the secrecy of their encounters. In their first direct interaction, Hermann and Liza address each other in the formal Russian tu (“вы” – “viy”) until Hermann declares that it doesn’t matter if he dies alone or among others (“Я все равно умру, один или при других”) Her next invocation of Liza’s “Spark of Compassion” switches to tu (“ты” – “tiy”, in “в тебе хоть искра состраЏраЏ”) Close and friends. relationships typically use this phrasing.Liza is neither at this point, but this plea for her sympathy gains in intimacy, vulnerability, and a hint of impropriety.

Liza is moved but keeps the formal вы until the very end of the scene. When Hermann declares that she can order his death, and that he will die if she does not order otherwise, Liza breaks up, and her verbs conjugate with the informal ты (“Уходи, прошу!” please!”) and then (“Живи!” “Live!”). Despite the manipulative overtones of Hermann’s farewell, they come together in a passionate and intimate declaration of love. It only took two suicide threats to get there.

Tellingly, the novel’s only use of the informal comes only when the ghost of the Countess confronts Hermann with occasional familiarity, revealing the secret of the cards against his will. The libretto preserves this phrasing, with an equally revealing creation: Yeletsky addresses her fiancé correctly and with devotion as вы.

The Commedia and Finita

Pushkin’s talent for bringing the human and the human out of the absurd and the tragic, often both at the same time, finds excellent ironic representation at the end of “The Queen of Spades”. Hermann plays his last card, as promised, to see him become the fatal queen.

“Hermann shivered; indeed, instead of an ace, he held the queen of spades. He couldn’t believe his eyes, nor did he understand how he could have made such a mistake.

At that moment, he thought he saw the queen of spades winking at him and smiling at him.

The scene ends and Pushkin turns to the future, where Hermann is locked up in a hospital, Liza has married the son of her grandmother’s former steward (a seemingly decent man who is not yet mentioned in the history), and they look after a service of their own. Tomsky has been promoted to captain and is engaged. It is an economical ending, perhaps even laconic. Order is restored, and whoever was looking for the supernatural tricks of the cards has destroyed himself.

The Tchaikovsky brothers have a different, darker view. Liza and Hermann reunite after the Countess’ ghost reveals the three winning cards. Liza is ready to forgive Hermann, but the soldier becomes increasingly distracted, raving about the cards to the point that he claims he no longer recognizes his beloved. Liza declares him lost and herself with him (“Прогиб он, прогиб! А вместе с ним и я!”) and ends her life in the Winter Canal. In the next scene, Yeletsky abruptly notes that things haven’t worked out between him and his fiancée – a statement that many performers have imbued with tragic meaning.

Hermann also wins a cruel fate. Seeing the queen of spades revealed, he also chooses suicide, begging forgiveness from the spirit of Yeletsky and Liza while the players, momentarily distracted from their game, sing their own prayers for his soul. There’s no redemption or sardonic commentary left, just a dark ending that would approach melodrama if not for the pathos and despair.

Pushkin’s story ends with the dead old countess and mad Hermann. Liza, however, is comfortably, perhaps happily married, and, for others, life goes on as before with an ironic levity tempering its darkness.

Tchaikovsky’s opera, on the other hand, ends with two suicides in addition to the frightened death of the Countess. While many productions have downplayed or revised the desperate ends of Liza and Hermann, these directorial deviations are clear choices to avoid the page. Even if the words are taken less than literally, they cannot erase the unshakeable darkness of the music.

Several different English translations of “The Queen of Spades” are available; quotes in this article are from work by Anthony Briggs for Pushkin Press. Modest Tchaikovsky’s libretto can be found in bookstores in Russian and in an English translation in line; the translations in the play are by the author.

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