Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades”, Live from Covent Garden: .Tuesday 22 January 2019

“The Queen of Spades” has a powerful, dramatic story – of a man whose excessive greed and excessive gambling destroys himself and those around him. The scene between him and an old Countess in her bedroom is one of the most gripping in all opera. Tchaikovsky’s goal was to compose operas (he composed ten) with “beautiful music and intense inner drama”.

The great conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, never tired of talking about the importance in music of good “tunes” and lamented the fact that much of twentieth-century composition was deficient in same. Of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky it can be asserted that he could write good tunes; his ballets, “Swan Lake”, “The Nutcracker” and “The Sleeping Beauty”, have some of the most tuneful music ever composed. There are also his “1812 Overture” , his six symphonies and, a perennial favourite, the delightful Waltz from his “Serenade for Strings”, to delight our ears. Nothing too surprising there – he said that it was seeing, at the age of twelve, “Don Giovanni”, by Mozart, the melodist supreme, that inspired him to become a composer. Matthew Boyden states:- “Tchaikovsky is one of the most powerful and direct of composers, whose music is characterised above all by its tunefulness and grand passion. … His technique was always at the service of melody. … The influence of Italian Bel Canto is plain in each of his works.”


Peter was born in 1840 at Votkinsk, six hundred miles East of Moscow. He was excessively attached to his mother, who died when he was fourteen. He never fully recovered from the emotional trauma of that event. Relationships with women were always problematic. At twenty-eight he came close to marrying an opera singer, and later was drawn into a disastrous, loveless marriage to a female student, Antonina Milyukova. It was a shambles – three days after the event, he wrote:- “I warned her from the outset to expect her to expect no more than brotherly affection. Physically, she revolts me”. Ken Russell’s ‘sixties film, “The Music Lovers”, with Glenda Jackson, tells the story of his life in a dramatic and sensationalist way. There’s the famous correspondence with the widow of a rich tycoon, Nadezhda Von Meck, the turbulent emotional life, and, finally and fatally, in New York in November 1893, the drinking of unboiled water during a cholera epidemic. Was it intentional? The speculation is never-ending!


“The Queen of Spades” premiered at the Maryinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, in December, 1890.The libretto is by the composer’s brother, Modest, after a Novella (short novel) by Pushkin. That first performance was a triumph and the opera was a great success in Russia and in Central Europe. It reached La Scala, Milan by 1906 and New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1910 (with Emmy Destinn, Leo Slezak and Alma Gluck – what a trio!).

The plot is certainly not lacking in drama: A synopsis goes as follows:- Hermann falls in love with Lisa, who’s already engaged to Prince Yeletsky. Her Grandmother, the Countess, (at one time a great gambler, known as “the queen of spades) has, by dubious means, gained a great gambling secret. Hermann, now a gambler, decides to get her great secret from her, at any cost. He enters her bedroom and, and, when she sees his pistol, she dies of shock. Everything goes wrong for him and Lisa is appalled that the secret is more important to him than his love of her. To the strains of gorgeous music and arias, duets, ensembles and choruses, the opera takes its doomed course.

Eva-Maria Westbroek and Alexandrs Antonenko are two fine singers but Antonenko will need to be at his best to cope with a vocally demanding role which gets more and more demanding as the opera proceeds. Felicity Palmer, should be superb in a role much coveted by singers who have had great careers – the Countess’s bedroom scene can be a real showstopper. And Yeletsky’s ravishing Act 2 aria to Lisa (“Ja vas lyublu; I love you beyond all measure”) is one of the glories of the Baritone repertoire – it’s simply magical.

Lovers of Ballet, also, should find much of delight in this production. And with Antonio Pappano on the podium, we can expect fine orchestral accompaniment.

In 2018 I travelled to Belfast to see a Scottish Opera production of Tchaikovsky’s equally famous opera, “Eugene Onegin” and it was tremendously enjoyable. “The Queen of Spades” now enjoys equal popularity among operagoers. I saw it in the early ,seventies with the Dublin Grand Opera Society, but it is much more popular today – very good productions in the modern era at Glyndebourne, Welsh National Opera and The Met, have illustrated many of the beauties in this wonderful work.

As I write I am listening to the Seija Ozawa recording of the opera, and loving it. If Covent Garden puts its best foot forward, this could be up there with the very best in opera that Eugene and his team have given us at SGC. “The Queen of Spades” has been described as a masterpiece; serious lovers of opera will miss it at their peril.     (From Jim Ryan).

[Fogra: “La Traviata” Live from Covent Garden on Wed, Jan 30th brings us one of the world’s most performed operas. Unmissable!]

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