National Theatre Orchestra and Chorus
Premiere performances: 26 and 29 March 2020 at the National Theatre
Is reason a reliable guardian of our lives, or is it a mere naïve witness, whose voice is hardly audible? Do we really desire that which we claim we desire? Are we free or are we damned? These are the timeless subjects treated in one of the greatest Russian operas, P. I. Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, a romantic thriller about three cards providing happiness, a spine-chiller, psychological drama and tragicomedy rolled into one, but also, in the best sense of the word, a great opera show about the life of an “improvident man” in the “century of reason”. And it was the rationalist 18th century in which Tchaikovsky chose to set the story of A. S. Pushkin’s novella of the same name. The composer considerably changed the original narrative. The protagonist is not Pushkin’s impostor Hermann, feigning love so as to acquire wealth, he is a ruffled, somewhat freakish and, perhaps even, ridiculous young man, who mistakes fateful passion for a woman with passion for gambling and money. Unlike Pushkin, Tchaikovsky opted for his hero and his assumed sweetheart, Liza, to meet a very tragic end. And he replaced Pushkin’s ironic sneer with compassion, tears and prayer. Tchaikovsky knew only too well what it is like to take fatally erroneous decisions, to struggle with the inner voices, and to supress one’s real wishes vis-à-vis orderly, happy and “normal” society. That might have been the very reason why he did not give his protagonist the German surname Hermann, as Pushkin had done in his tale, but the Christian name German, thus referring to the Latin word “germanus”, meaning “brother” or “akin person”... The opera The Queen of Spades is endowed with Tchaikovsky’s splendid music, replete with emotion, tension, colour, stark and abrupt contrasts, tragically muted drops, as well as grandiose sonic culminations. It ushers in Tchaikovsky’s brilliant musical testament – his final, sixth, enigmatic symphony, the Pathetique, or, more precisely and eloquently, the Passionate. The story of The Queen of Spades takes place in St Petersburg, where in 1890 it received its world premiere. Three years later, the city hosted the first performance of the Passionate symphony, and it was there where soon afterwards its creator, German’s “akin person” died under yet to be elucidated circumstances ...