The Sydney Symphony Becomes Opera Impresario with a Memorable Queen of Spades by Tchaikovsky in Concert

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Alexandr Benois. The Queen of Spades' (1921). Design for the masked ball, Act II. Watercolor and pencil on paper.

Alexandr Benois. The Queen of Spades’ (1921). Design for the masked ball, Act II. Watercolor and pencil on paper.


The Queen of Spades (Пиковая дама)
Music by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, libretto by Modest Tchaikovsky after Pushkin

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House: 1 December 2012
repeated 3 December 2012, Monday’s performance to be broadcast on ABC Classic FM on 9 December at 7pm AEST.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy – conductor

Stuart Skelton – Hermann
Dina Kuznetsova – Liza
José Carbó – Tomski
Andrei Bondarenko – Yeletski
Irina Tchistyakova – Countess
Deborah Humble – Polina, Milosvor
Angus Wood – Chekalinski
Gennadi Dubinsky – Surin
Victoria Lambourn – Governess

Sydney Philharmonia Choirs
Brett Wymark – music director

Sydney Children’s Choir
Lyn Williams – director


Tchaikovsky wrote Queen of Spades, in 1890, and one other opera, Iolanta, in 1891, near the end of his life after having promised never to write another opera because of the unpopularity of The Sorceress (1887). For theatre, these were very fertile years for Tchaikovsky. The Mariinksy first performed Sleeping Beauty in 1890 and Nutcracker in 1892. He wrote Queen of Spades at a Mozartean rate in Florence where it is said he composed the music faster than his brother Modest wrote and sent the libretto scene by scene.1 Perhaps living in Florence gave him enough distance from the darker, more repellent aspects of the story to avoid getting run down by it, but anyhow it seems a strange subject for him to choose, especially surprising to hear the incredibly lyrical music he created for it. The antihero Hermann is repellent, but for some of the beautiful music Tchaikovsky gave him, yet even so Hermann’s are not as beautiful as Don Giovanni’s arias (and duets), but I don’t believe Tchaikovsky thought or intended his music to be as beautiful as Mozart’s. The blatant misogyny, the unchivalrous behavior of Hermann towards the Countess in particular stands out uncomfortably in the opera. The story does more or less parallel that of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, with the first act ballads on which the operas turn, the damaged, outsider male lead, the female lead’s attempt to redeem him, but Hermann hasn’t the sea captain heroism which ennobles the Dutchman, his crimes are plainly evident as he commits them before our eyes (or ears) so are less forgivable, and Queen of Spades’ deep, dark mythological kernel is wrapped up under many layers of mundane aristocratic dissipation, gambling, and bourgeois aspiration to upper class mundanity. This tends to make Hermann hard to sympathize with and Liza’s love for him hard to believe, or at least understand. Tchaikovsky himself questioned his own involvement in with story: ‘Have they gone mad? What do I see in this story? I have already said that no one should expect me to ever write opera again. Let me occupy myself with something truly beautiful, like the ballet Sleeping Beauty or a program symphony which I want to write and will be something definitive.’ 1 Yet at the same time the music, despite its length, develops in a symphonic way, the use of leitmotifs which emanate from the orchestra ties it into the drama and lifts the whole opera enough, almost as if the orchestra were an extra character-in-spirit without the weight of a body tying it down. Where the orchestra falls back into accompaniment, the singers’ lyrical line carries the whole piece of music, inexorably in Hermann’s case. Perhaps psychology, growing into a science just at the time the opera was created, provided interest and purpose here to Tchaikovsky, maybe some hope for the characters, especially the mad Hermann, but really it is more like a Greek tragedy, at least Sophocles’ Antigone where the characters are doomed from the beginning, as they are in the opera from the very short tragic overture. It is fascinating as music, but the story, a tragedy with a comedy’s imagery, is somehow off. If they were even tarot cards on which the story hinged, or knuckle bones, instead of playing cards, the countess an oracle and Liza one of her priestesses, it would go much smoother, but with the modernity of the setting and the triviality of the imagery and Hermann’s very modern variety of madness, the mythological is diluted in the opera. It is more urban legend than myth.

The orchestral part of the opera, perhaps not exactly a character as much as characterful, whether sympathetic to Liza in her arias, or prodding Hermann on in his, or “speaking” its peace on its own, never merely the detached observer, becomes all the more intense and prominent in the concert setting. As a concert opera, this production is closer to the concert end of the spectrum than the semi-staged. There is no set whatsoever, nor any attempt to project images on a screen (which of course can be well-done but I think would have gotten in the way here); there are no props, except for the Countess’ cane at the end of Act I (which is more an instrument than a prop anyway) and her chair in the second scene of Act II; one lighting change is used, and very dramatic it is, but thankfully not over-used; costumes are suggested with all the men in tuxedos except for Hermann who wears a long, plain coat with a waistcoat, and the Russian and Russian-American women wearing something approaching period dress, in Liza’s beautiful black lace gown and the Countess’ more traditionally Russian robe, but the other women wearing modern brightly solid-colored satin gowns. Flowers line the front of the stage which can serve well enough for the opening park scene or for the funeral in Act III. The narrow strips of stage left around the sides and in front of the orchestra don’t allow much moving about, which is fine for this production, but are fully put to use. Characters enter and leave from either side, and also a small platform at the side in the space behind the harp and in front of the horns serves well the children’s chorus in Act I, Liza and Polina’s second scene of Act I and the pastoral oratorio-within-the-concert-opera in the Act II ball scene. Stuart Skelton has great dramatic sense and presence in his walking on and off stage even these short distances in character. Otherwise there is some gestural acting, Hermann and Liza embrace after their Act I love scene, but in fact the rigid, immobile Hermann works very well especially with Skelton’s bright and immediate voice.

So all the drama, psychology, and characterization is in the voices and the music and Vladimir Ashkenazy is clearly the chief of the affair. This of course puts more demand on orchestra, musicians and singers, but also the opera becomes more intensely musical and more distressing, with no set design or director’s premise to share the theatre with or rest on, nor in this case to temper or modify the score’s intensity, and most of the singers were up to it most of the time. With the orchestra out of the pit and in the daylight, so to speak, one can notice and appreciate much more the instrumental side of the music both where it is purely instrumental and where it accompanies singers, for example the clarinet’s role in introducing the more dire scenes (just about all of the scenes of the opera), the detail and the complexity of the music come across remarkably, the oboe which accompanies Liza becomes almost a partner in a duet. And also the role of the orchestra becomes more interesting. Ashkenazy’s gestures were more restrained here than usual, mostly quick, jerky expressions in the arms and hands, relatively little beating of time, which seemed to bring out the sharpness of the music even while giving room to the group-expressiveness of the orchestra and rubato to the singers. He always revels in the intensity of symphonic music while avoiding playing to the crowd, though he does like it loud, and at times for a singer must reign in the dynamics very quickly and severely, which isn’t necessarily a flaw. It is a long time to maintain that kind of sympathetic concentration, and the musicians did seem to tire a touch in the second act before the interval — which oddly broke the act in two at the point after Catherine the Great is hailed by the chorus — but otherwise played with especially remarkable honest, articulate expression, with clarity and smooth edges on the group tone, following nimbly the rhythm of the Russian language, the quick, off beat rhythmic changes and dives, the alternating legato and staccato phrases without any sense of artifice. The musicians always played with great spirit, the funeral scene in Act III and continuing into the fatal canal rendezvous, a beautiful scene for which the house lights dimmed out and they played by reading lights, was taut and moving. The funeral chorus sang off stage, their sound let in just enough by one of the stalls’ doors.

Alexandr Benois. 'The Queen of Spades' (1921). Design for Act I. Watercolor on paper. 48 x 32 cm.

Alexandr Benois. ‘The Queen of Spades’ (1921). Design for Act I. Watercolor on paper. 48 x 32 cm. 

Tchaikovsky’s “naturalism” in the music, with orchestration suggesting pastoralism, for example in the drone of the bassoons in the overture and first scene in the park, sounds artificial, at least stylized, and even the choral writing is a tad rigid, though it is late Romantic music, far removed from its early 19th century arcadian roots. He must have intended this stylized quality, if not just to sharpen his depiction of the seedier side of Catherine the Great’s Russia. The opera has only two outdoor scenes and only one scene sees the sun, and then only partly, as it is broken up by storm clouds, even the pastoral Daphne and Chloe oratorio-within-the-opera in Act II is framed by the masked ball so its sunshine is artificial, and the unnaturalness of the casino, of money, Hermann’s very post-industrial, bourgeois ambition-obsession, which cannot even be cured by the love of the enormous-hearted woman he loves, dominates the opera. The thunderstorm in the music too is stylized and a bit clichéd, with its bass drum’s rigid rhythms. The opera can take all this, and somehow also Liza and Polina’s chorus of friends, here some 80 strong in the intimate scene in her bedroom in Act I fits with this, even if the massed voices still strike one as odd. The opening of Act II which time warps into Classical music, sounded almost Haydnesque and continuing through the miniature pastoral opera, is a relief to hear, and serves to intensify the following scenes by contrast, without being incongruous, or even anachronistic if you take it as diegetic music. Though it is only of entertainment value to the characters at the masked ball who continue down their tragic paths. But even in the way this scene was sung it seemed quite distant, despite the colorful tone of Tabatha McFadyen’s Shepherdess.

The orchestra plays a role beyond accompaniment. While it seems to “sing” sympathetically with Liza — and Dina Kuznetsova had a particularly close rapport with the orchestra — it seems to prick, even wrestle with Hermann. Ashkenazy brought out with the orchestra’s clarity the pricklier music Tchaikovsky set against Hermann’s parts and it was as if the orchestra, so close to the fore in this concert setting, especially so while Hermann sang, played the role of evil malignant spirits which goaded on Hermann’s madness and made everything effortful for the tragic antihero, even as his love was requited. The two, singer and orchestra, generated this tension and tumult which went beyond febrile. But, even within the same scene, the orchestra played with deep sympathy for Liza’s parts, with much more lyrical delicacy, with the swelling feelings which carry her, draw her to Hermann. Dina Kuznetsova’s firm tone bloomed colorfully and brightly even with the large orchestra behind her. The part has a large range, dipping down and staying very low for a soprano — most of the high parts in the cast are very low — but her voice has a gamba-like quality which is particularly striking in her low range and a richness of tone, and complements Stuart Skelton’s tenor fittingly considering her very self-possessed, definite Liza. Skelton brought a heroic sort of tenor to Hermann — he has sung Siegmund in Walküre in Seattleand will again at Rings in Seattle, Paris and Melbourne next year — which in itself is an interesting way to do the antihero. His voice is powerful enough and easily carries through the concert hall with present immediacy. The intensity, madness and the certain dark beauty of his arias obtains a greater weightiness. José Corbó’s Tomski, the only other character with whom Hermann shares any sort of human relationship, counterbalances him, at least partly, with his reason, painted with the purer, more mellifluous tone of his baritone. He gave his ballad in Act I as a convincing storyteller, the fulcrum of the opera’s mythological drama, which inadvertently sets off the tragic idée fixe in Hermann, suitably colorful and varied with well-judged pauses and phrasing. Skelton’s low, soft end has a marvelous smooth-pebbly quality which works very well to cloud those first sunny scenes in the park, both solo and in the duet with Yeletski and the quintet, but gradually as his passion and his obsession erupt, his admission to Tomski of love for Liza and after the urban legend ballad about the three cards which pushes him over the edge, the full heroic pathos of his voice comes out and adds to the inexorable momentum of the opera’s music. He tended to emphasize the sibilant consonants, especially in the recitative, but seems to do well with the Russian (I’m really not qualified to judge though), after all Hermann is a foreigner and outsider in the opera, as Chekalinski and Surin point out sourly several times. He frightens all three characters he interacts with, if not to say himself too, very convincingly for he frightens the listener too. The third character, whom Hermann seems to want to make his nemesis, is of course the Countess, who ends up wreaking vengeance on him. Irina Tchistjakova had even more dramatic presence in walking on and off stage and standing or sitting, as in the fatal penultimate encounter in Act II, than Skelton. There was more than a bit of Carabosse to her Countess, which did much for the urban legend, if not making it myth then real fairy tale. Her voice lived up to this physical presence, with a kaleidoscope of deep, dark but unmuddied colors, and sounded almost masculine at times, which gives an interesting interpretation given how Hermann feels threatened enough by her to call her names and to pull a pistol — a convincing and frightening confrontation between the two even without a literal pistol. Yet even as she is a scary force as she chides Liza for “dancing Russian” in Act I, she had a very human fear of her own for her ward, even before her song in the chair after the ball “Ах, постыл мне этот свет!…” (“Ach, I hate this world!…”) and in the following confrontation with Hermann won much sympathy. Unfortunately her final scene as a ghost is very brief. Andrei Bondarenko’s Yeletski lent himself another baritone counterweight to Skelton with a quite strong, youthful, lyrical voice, more nasal, and sang the famous beautiful aria in Act II Scene 1 “Я вас люблю, люблю безмерно…” (“I love you, I love you to madness…”) which as a last plea to Liza has a strong pull of missing, and a tinge of jealousy. The ensemble singing was powerful, and lucid enough that the various contrary characters were clear within Tchaikovsky’s potent harmonies, these varied voices well balanced while vibrating off one another’s overtones, and carried extremely well the thrust of the general interpretation.

Sydney Philharmonia Choirs provided the massed chorus of around 180 voices, which with Ashkenazy’s orchestra produced some spectacular sounds. Tchaikovsky doesn’t throw anything too complicated at them, but their style is more vertical, harmonic than horizontal, and were far from a modern opera chorus, which is expected to dress in costume and act, or at least move about, separate as they were in the back rows of seating behind the stage. Their tone in laying out these chords is quite gorgeous, especially in their final, a cappella prayer “Господь! Прости ему!…” (“Lord! Pardon him…”), with also great dynamic control. They seem to have a rapport with the Sydney Symphony grown of many collaborations.

Two serious and excellent concert operas by Sydney’s main orchestras have now gone some way to filling the void left by Opera Australia’s lurch towards the superficial. The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s semi-staged performance of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and now the Sydney Symphony’s concert performance of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, which with the Pinchgut Opera’s annual fully staged opera (to put on Rameau’s Pollux and Castor next week) gives thirsty Sydney operamanes something and in a musical acoustic. It is telling, more so than written words could be, that none of these three groups performed in the Sydney Opera House’s newly renamed Joan Sutherland Theatre, which is still in dire need of total renovation. Even with the Sydney Symphony promising concert operas each of the next six years, continuing with Wagner’s Flying Dutchman next year, and one each year after David Robertson takes over from Vladimir Ashkenazy for the 2014 season, it is not enough real opera for a civilized city of 4.5 million.

  1. Santiago Martín Bermúdez’s essay The Queen of Spades: the dark appeal of three cards.
About the author

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller lives in Sydney and writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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