Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 48 minutes.
I have wanted to review this opera for a while as, unlike many people, I actually like it, including the faux-Mozatean 18th-century parody which to me comes off better here than in Massenet’s Manon. Hopefully this is seen as one of my funniest reviews as what I like about this opera (and what I hate about it) will surprise almost everyone. This review is of the 1983 Bolshoi production.
PLOT: St. Petersburg, 1780s. German, an officer will do anything to get the secret of the three cards from the mysterious Countess, including seducing her granddaughter Liza, and then finally frightening the elderly woman to death. But the old woman has her revenge on him, from beyond the grave.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1 (65 minutes)
Scene 1: Summer Garden, Petrograd.
0: The prelude **, is a masterful and menacing little piece that is underestimated. Starting off with the melody in the woodwind with string accompaniment taking on chase, imploding, and then turning to an ardently romantic tune to the end. It must be one of the two best Tchaikovsky opera preludes.
4, 12: The cheery opening scene ** including a good bird chirp mimic. At first it is just a sunny day with girls playing and their governesses happy for the break from duties. Boys arrive playing soldiers. The children leave with their nurses and two soldiers discuss how this odd guy named German keeps popping in on the gambling tables but never bets. Tomsky, another officer, asks him why he is so glum. He replies that it is because he is in love with a woman of higher social status *.
15: The chorus flies about as Lisa and Paulina show up with a furious but not all that tuneful number *. Meanwhile German is being whiny and threatens suicide.
22: A quintette ensues, all to rather ornery music as German realizes that his fantasy girl Lisa is engaged to Prince Yeletsky, at least until the Countess and Lisa finally join in, the former referencing how terrified she is of German *. This brief moment is, however, better than the rest of the number.
25: With Yeletsky and the women gone, the other three officers discuss (while German spies on them) about how the mysterious Countess, when young and beautiful, traded her virginity for the secret of the ever-winning three cards from the even more mysterious Comte Saint Germain (sort of a V-card for 3-card deal). Tomsky tells the tale of how she later revealed the mystery to two men, her husband and a young lover, but was warned by an apparition that revealing the cards to a third man would cause her death and that this “third suitor” would try to force the secret from her violently **. The three think German should be the third suitor, for some odd reason encouraging him. The number really sounds like glorified recitative, but it works satisfactorily.
30: A tropical (arctic?) depression starts up ** (begrudgingly, I want to give it *) and German becomes obsessed with discovering the secret of the three cards, even though he knows it means the death of the old Countess. He vows that either Lisa will be his or he will die.
Scene 2: A room in the Countess’s house, Lisa and Paulina playing the piano for the girls.
33: Lisa and Paulina sing a lyrically haunting, if dramatically pointless, duet about evening in the countryside **.
37: The girls ask for more and Paulina obliges with a sad song about a woman who was once happy walking through the countryside now telling happy younger girls to beware. A believable piece even if, like the previous number, it has no dramatic meaning **.
41: Paulina switches gears (because things are too gloomy even for her) and the girls come up with a chirpy rondo *, but it doesn’t last long as a governess arrives and decides to teach the girls how to behave in society instead. This is admittedly a bit of a bore. Paulina tells Lisa to cheer up before leaving. Lisa then dismisses her maid, not in a happy mood at all.
47: We now enter an 18-minute finale: Lisa examines herself, why is she crying/wretched/frightened? **
50: She confesses her forbidden and illicit attraction to the night **.
56: Suddenly, the orchestra is assassinated with German’s arrival. The music hees and haws until something comes up that sounds like a low-temp version of the prelude, but it dies as German confesses his love to Lisa. He now says that in exchange for just one moment alone with her to gaze at her beauty he will disappear out of her life forever. Lisa tells him to go. German’s piteous love arioso * is mostly a death wish. Lisa accepts him like Minna and Count Dracula, minor climax from the orchestra.
59: The Countess breaks up everything which her arrival, a star * because it is a welcomed relief since German has to shut up in order to avoid detection.
62, 65: German disgustingly climaxes with lust after the three secret cards, but Lisa motions for him to go. The romantic theme from the prelude returns and then something else that is rather good for a change wells up from the orchestra *. She tells him he will live. At least the orchestral ending ** does not fail even if the vocal pleasures have been null for some time.
ACT 2 (57 minutes)
Scene 1: A masked ball.
0: Finally, the faux-18th century music arrives **. The chorus comes in two minutes later to the same music. The courtiers gossips amongst themselves about German until Yeletski arrives with Lisa.
6: Yeletski’s love song ***, a shockingly delicate baritone aria of the highest class in which he declares to Lisa that he shares in her suffering. I wish it would go on and on forever. Lisa silently passes him off and sneaks a note to the dreadful German, who fantasizes about getting rich off the three cards secret. He still wants Lisa, somehow, but he really wants the cards. The countries press him on about this but at least he finally admits to going mad, old duck.
13: The Divertissement ** is an extravagant faux-Mozatean coup de theatre which could so easily bog down into idiocy. It consists of four parts: 1) Chorus of Shepherds **. 2) Sarabande for the Shepherds *. 3) Duet for Prilepa and Milovzor ***, the most accurate spoof of Mozart ever written by a 19th century composer. 4) The finale ** (six minutes and the longest part) starting with the arrival of Zlatogor, who wants to steal Prilepa from Milovzor with all of his immense wealth (epic fail, Prilepa would rather live in the fields with Milovzor). The Mozartean spell is broken somewhat in this part but the duet tune returns and brings everything around with some Rossini-sounding ballet music and then a return of the chorus.
27: Lisa slips the key to her bedroom to German, pleading with him to deflower her the following night. Meanwhile the Countess flees from his watch in a mix of terror and annoyance. The woodwinds freak out * as he takes the key and tells her it must be tonight, not tomorrow night.
30: The Empress is announced and all make ready for her as the scene ends with a grand flourish **.
Scene 2: The Countess’ bedroom.
32: A relentless heartbeat like theme ** (patterned on a theme from the first scene of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov?) in the lower strings plagues higher strings yearning to breath free (but never do again). It goes on for over two solid minutes before German breaks into the bedroom.
38: The Countess comes in with her ladies in a fretful chorus **. Lisa tells her maid Marsha to await German for the scheduled deflowering. She has chosen him as her husband (poor miserable girl). The ladies come back having finished the Countess’ toilet.
40: The Countess, like most old timers, hates the modern world, but for very different reasons **. Rather than being a stuffy conservative old bat she remembers the good old days of immoral decadence, song and dance!
46: She sings an aria from Gretry’s Richard Coeur-de-Lion *** which is slightly off chronologically. Gretry was a composer of the time in which the opera is set (the late rather than early 18th century). Still it’s a bit of fun opera trivia.
52: German comes out of hiding and pleads with the Countess not to be frightened, he just wants the secret of the three cards. She is silent. He goes off into an ornery minor whirlwind telling her that if she had ever known love to tell him the secret. The Countess rises and refuses to speak, ordering him out before he threatens her and she collapses and dies from shock *. German persists with knowing the secret but soon realizes the Countess is dead. Now he will never know the secret. Lisa happens to come in and German tells her the Countess is dead and that now he will never know the three cards. Lisa is horrified and realizes he just wanted the secret, and almost ruined herself for him as he runs away. This is the climax of the drama but frankly the scene musically just collapses into despair and oblivion.
ACT 3 (46 minutes)
Scene 1: German’s barracks.
0: Doom settles on the opera with a sad melody * and then some military music, but then quickly this dissolves into dramatic music. German reads a letter from Lisa who wants to see him again for some bizarre reason know only to her poor insane self. She wants to see him at midnight or she will have to forget him (re: commit suicide).
6: German can not sleep and fantasizes that he can hear the chorus chanting at the Countess’ funeral ** as a storm rises up outside.
7: A knock is heard at the door, he dares not answer it. The orchestra swells in fear **, the door opens on its own and it is the Ghost of the Countess. Forced to tell German the secret, she has come against her will from beyond the grave in the hope that he will use the secret to save Lisa and marry her, setting them up for life. She reveals the cards: three, seven, ace (no duh, who would not have thought it was those really?). German becomes insane with the knowledge.
Scene 2: The Winter Canal.
11: Lisa comes on in abject terror **, will he come or will he not?
13: The little idiot thinks her beloved incapable of committing murder, also she is tired and suffering (what else is new?). She goes on and on about this in a musically sobering but lovely aria, which dramatically I could care less about at this point **.
17: We get the first hint of Lisa’s suicide theme just before midnight strikes and she panics and momentarily gives up in a “give up” aria in which she does, in fact, give up *.
19: But no, German arrives half out of his mind and they engage in an almost meaningless duet which is never the less musically lovely **. She is willing to go anywhere with him but he wants to go to the gambling tables. He goes over the Countess’ death scene and to Lisa he is her grandmother’s murderer. There there is a lot about fate and how Lisa is somehow just as guilty as he is. She begs him not to leave her, but he figures out (finally, why not before) that he was the third person to receive the secret, then blurts out the cards to her before running away again and she goes off to drown herself in the canal (wildly anticipated).
Scene 3: The gambling hall.
27, 31: Just to mercilessly torment us, Tchaikovsky makes the last scene of the opera the longest of the finale act (19 minutes in total). It starts with a frolicking but idiotic gamblers chorus *. Yeletsky brings up the maxim of “unlucky at love, lucky at cards”. After the abject intimacy of the last three tableaux one would expect having the full (male) chorus on stage playing faro after nearly fifty minutes of no males at all (excluding the funeral chorus) except German (who is probably opera’s saddest excuse of a man) would be a pleasure and it finally does live up to expectations (just) with Tomsky’s aria * about birds. The following chorus is horrid and stupid with only a mildly agreeable (but furious) tune.
34: The following recitative ends with a rather nice accompaniment from the orchestra ** as German arrives (demented by now). The boys all go ornery, scattered, as they start to play. He bets on three, win! He bets on seven, win! He bets, well he goes into a patch of arioso. By this point the flighty early-Verdi accompaniment to this aria is beneath a composer of Tchaikovsky’s status *.
40: Yeletski wants to settle things with German, finally something remotely interesting happens but is it worth Yeletski’s trouble. He then bets on ace–and loses, the ghost of the Countess laughs at him and he shoots himself right there on the faro table. A star for the fact that I am happy he is now dying *.
43: German starts fantasizing that he sees Lisa, finally some nice sky-ward music pops in and we get something mature for a change **. The final minute consists of the men praying for German’s soul. It is nice singing, but he doesn’t deserve it.
Many years ago I read Pushkin’s original short story, in which Lisa is much younger and not a love interest for German. I also recall much of the story being told from Lisa’s perspective but that may have been adaptation I read or I am mixing this story up with Letter from an Unknown Woman. The original is much better than the operatic adaptation. Fun fact: the Countess is 87 years old at the time of her death. The Queen of Spades has an interesting main story, which I got bored of very quickly. I hate German, both personally and musically. He is the most loathsome anti-hero in all opera and even in act one scene one I wanted him to just get struck by lightening and die before he could hassle the nice old hipster Countess. How does he not make the connection that he is obviously the crazy third man in the story until act 3 scene 2? By the second act I started getting tired of Lisa as well, and her suicide gave me a mild sense of dramatic satisfaction because she is a birdbrain. The third act in total feels like overkill and anti-climactic after the death of the Countess and Lisa’s revelation of the truth about German (on which she backtracks for some bizarre reason) even though musically I couldn’t just give up on the poor old thing. Tchaikovsky threw in Lisa’s suicide scene to tie up loose ends but I don’t know if I agree that it is necessary. I rather feel sorry for Yeletski, except he does get the best aria in the entire opera.
For the first ten minutes things are on the up and up, the prelude is dramatic and menacing, the children are cute, the governesses are obviously searching for other forms of employment and getting nowhere. But then German arrives the situation falls like a lead balloon until the Countess shows up and instantly takes a disliking to him (wise woman). Tomsky relates the backstory well but the storm which ends the first scene is musically good but dramatically stupid, like it’s something out of Lord Byron. So that brings us to the second scene which has some rather lovely female-only numbers (which I must admit serve zero purpose to the story but I like them) followed by a lovely aria for Lisa and then German arrives with a cold pressure weather front. This first Lisa-German duet is awful and I can not wait for the mercy of the Countess’ arrival. The only worthwhile aspect of it comes from the orchestra. Act two gives us most of the faux-18th century stuff and Yeletski’s beautiful love song to Lisa. The divertissement is fun, at least I find it fun, especially the duet, and for me at least it was a welcomed distraction from the horrible main duo. Lisa acts like a nitwit pleading with German to take her maidenhead and the empress shows up grandly, of course. Scene two we have the scary heartbeat music, the arrival of the Countess into her boudoir and Lisa’s excitement over her anticipated deflowering (widely disinteresting). The Countess sings the Gretry aria and falls asleep only to be woken up and terrified to death by German. Lisa comes in and figures mostly everything out. Then we are in act 3, which consists of two rather intimate scenes and one public scene which consist of good music, but I really don’t care about the main characters at this point and the ones I do care about are either minor, no longer part of the story, or dead. Also, isn’t all of this a little too long? I really feel that this opera could be cut by about twenty or thirty minutes without much damage. Notice that for long stretches of the score, apart from German, there are no males at all, in fact not a single male other than German is seen (although they are heard in the funeral chorus) after the arrival of the Empress until the final scene in the gambling hall, and the second scene of act 1 consists of women and German. This is almost 60% of the opera’s total running time, although it must be admitted that apart from the governesses and the divertissement the other three tableaux are mostly devoid of females, with the finale scene being entirely male.
Before I pronounce sentence I must say that I love Paulina (and contralti in general!). Barely an A-, maybe even a B+ if I want to be spiteful because this is the only opera so far that I have heard where I vastly prefer the subplots and the obvious padding material over the main narrative.