Page to Opera Stage: Pushkin’s Tragicomedy & Tchaikovsky’s Melodrama in ‘The Queen of Spades’

By Carmen Paddock

“Page to Opera Stage” looks at stories – real-life or fiction, old and new – that have inspired operas, and the ways these narratives 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 has expanded the original novella, radically altering characters and atmosphere in the process. 

While the short, brilliant life and career of Alexander Pushkin cannot be accurately divided, his attention turned more prominently to prose fiction in the years following his novel-in-verse, “Eugene Onegin.” In March 1834, a short, ghostly tale of avarice and gambler’s luck appeared in a St. Petersburg literary journal. “The Queen of Spades” (“Пиковая дама”, “Pikovaya dama”), featuring a novice gambler (Hermann), a skillful old countess, her ward (Liza), and a card-happy count (Tomsky), begins and ends around a game of cards. The story of supernatural luck becomes more and more real—perhaps. It is a novella acutely aware of its time—with one jocular throwaway line poking fun at the lack of a popular Russian literary tradition before Pushkin’s own era.

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

Dramatically and musically, Tchaikovsky drew inspiration and rebellion from the opera world. The opening crowd scene and children’s chorus is a direct homage to Bizet’s “Carmen,” and the decision to push the opera into the time of Catherine the Great rather than the era of Pushkin and his contemporaries sidesteps Russian opera’s tendency for extreme realism or folklore fantasy.

Tchaikovsky brings the court of Catherine the Great to life when he shifts the story back in time. Not everything transitions well—a line about the elderly Countess having sung, in her youth, an aria from André Grétry’s 1784 opera “Richard Coeur-de-Lion” no longer tracks 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 mistakes, but a continuation of altered reality. When dates and places deliberately do not add up, the freedom to explore the boundaries of reality and unreality expands.

“The Queen of Spades,” both novel and opera, have long invited discussions into hidden meanings and symbolism. The novel’s balance between reality and imagination and the narrative’s reliance on hearsay has been variously interpreted, similarly to Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.” In the opera some symbols are overt, as with Tchaikovsky’s three- and seven-syllable motifs illuminating ominous phrases not directly related to the fateful cards. Others are found only in stage directions left open for interpretation. Nighttime is referenced constantly, exaggerated even from Pushkin’s text, in both dialogue and stage directions.

For this piece, however, the words on the page take precedence, regardless of directorial decisions or personal readings. Thus, Tchaikovsky’s addition of a love triangle and reworked ending are the focus.

Three’s a Crowd

One of the largest and most effective changes Tchaikovsky made for the stage concerns the half-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, horrifically backfires. Liza is then absent from the story after sending Hermann away following the Countess’ death.

The opera, however, dramatically raises the stakes. When the curtain rises, Liza is engaged to Prince Yeletsky, an invention of the libretto. Hermann is introduced as a young officer hopelessly in love with a woman he does not know, who turns out to be Liza. An encounter with her and the Countess in the park prompts Count Tomsky to tell Hermann the Countess’ alleged secret of the cards. The collision course, therefore, is set over impossible romance, not the gambling table.

We occasionally see Prince Yeletsky around the card tables, but he is otherwise the picture of decorum and devotion. In the audience-favorite aria “Я вас люблю,” his self-sacrificing, noble love even in the face of rejection and jealousy stands in stark relief to Hermann’s.

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 on stage that comes through in their language, address, and secrecy of their meetings. In their first direct interaction, Hermann and Liza address each other in the Russian formal you (“вы” – “viy”) until Hermann declares it does not matter if he dies alone or among others (“Я все равно умру, один или при других”). His next invocation of Liza’s “spark of compassion” switches to the Russian informal you (“ты” – “tiy”, in “в тебе хоть искра состраданья”). Close friends and relations typically use this phrasing. Liza is neither at this point, but this appeal to her sympathy gains intimacy, vulnerability, and a dash of impropriety.

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

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

La Commedia è Finita

Pushkin’s talent for drawing the human and humane out of the absurd and tragic, often both at once, finds great, wry representation at the end of “The Queen of Spades.” Hermann plays his last card, the promised ace, only to see it become the fated queen.

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

At that moment he seemed to see the queen of spades winking and smiling at him.”

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

The Tchaikovsky brothers have a different, darker vision. Liza and Hermann meet once again after the Countess’ ghost reveals the three winning cards. Liza is prepared to forgive Hermann, but the soldier becomes increasingly distracted, raving about the cards to the point he claims he does not recognize his beloved anymore. 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 following scene, Yeletsky brusquely notes that things did not work out between him and his betrothed—a statement many performers have imbued with tragic meaning.

Hermann too earns a cruel fate. Seeing the queen of spades revealed, he chooses suicide as well, begging forgiveness from Yeletsky and Liza’s spirit while the gamblers, momentarily distracted from their game, sing their own prayer for his soul. No redemption or sardonic commentary remains, just a bleak end that would veer close to melodrama were it not for the pathos and desperation.

Pushkin’s tale concludes with the old countess dead and Hermann insane. Liza, however, is comfortably, perhaps happily married, and, for the others, life goes on as before with a wry levity tempering its darkness.

Tchaikovsky’s opera, by contrast, ends with two suicides on top of the Countess’ death by fright. While many productions have downplayed or revised Liza’s and Hermann’s desperate ends, these directorial deviations are clear choices to avoid the page. Even if the words are taken less than literally, they cannot erase the unwavering darkness within the music.

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


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