The Queen of Spades in Amsterdam

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Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades is an opera that swerves between the apparently conventional and the obviously unsettling. As Dostoevskian antihero Herman crashes through 1790s St. Petersburg in search of the three cards that will always win, we can never quite tell what’s real and what’s the product of his feverish, anachronistic mind. And that’s before Stefan Herheim got around to directing it.

But now Herheim has, and on the way to Berlin for some work I went to Amsterdam to see it.


Tchaikovsky, The Queen of Spades. De Nationale Opera, Amsterdam, 6/26/16. Production directed by Stefan Herheim, sets and costumes by Philipp Fürhofer, lights by Bernd Perkrabek, dramaturgy by Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach. Conducted by Mariss Jansons with Misha Didyk (Herman), Alexey Markov (Tomsky), Vladimir Stoyanov (Yeletsky), Svetlana Aksenova (Liza), Larissa Diadkova (Countess), Anna Goryachova (Polina)


This is the rare opera that I’m writing about that you can go and watch a video stream right now over on the Opera Platform website. And I encourage you to do so. The video does not have subtitles; you can download a libretto as a PDF here.

First Card

The last time I was in Amsterdam it was for Herheim and Mariss Jansons’s and the Concertgebouw’s Onegin. Now I came back for Queen of Spades. De Nationale Opera (AKA the Dutch National Opera) has a lot of international connections: they sent the Met Lulu last season and we’ll get their Guillaume Tell the next. Occasionally, as in this production, you get the extremely deluxe experience of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, one of the best orchestras in the world, in the pit. This production is headed to ROH in London next, which may be why it’s strictly PG-13.

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We open in a comfortable late 19th-century home’s library with wood paneling, a piano, a fireplace, and some armchairs. A white-haired, bearded man, easily recognizable as Tchaikovsky, is finishing up a tryst with a much taller, much surlier man (who he pays). The taller man starts up a birdcage music box, which plays Papageno’s wistful but cheery “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” from Die Zauberflöte. Tchaikovsky then runs to the piano, and his playing starts the orchestra in the pit. Soon enough, though, a crowd rushes in and forces a glowing glass of water on him. He drinks, and, ushered by an angel of death (straight out of Herheim’s Parsifal), dies. The opera then unfolds in this liminal state: it is Tchaikovsky’s failed marriage and his response to “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen,” a gay man in the nineteenth century who can never have Papageno’s domestic bliss or security.

Let’s be clear here: this is myth. Herheim usually deconstructs these stories and I was surprised he decided to indulge this one. All the historical evidence indicates that Tchaikovsky died of cholera after accidentally drinking a glass of infected water. The suicide theory was popularized in the 1980s (during the height of the AIDS crisis, interestingly enough) but thanks to the research of Alexander Poznansky in the late 80s and 90s, no scholars take it seriously today.* I think dramaturg Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach’s disingenuous note in his synopsis shows that he knows this very well (and, to be fair, we never see an actual wedding):

spades program note

This short exposition does considerable violence to chronology. Tchaikovsky got married in 1877, and the letter to Modest alluded to above dates from this time. He composed The Queen of Spades much later, in 1890. He died in 1893. In his biography, Poznansky argues that Tchaikovsky eventually came to terms with his sexuality–not that it was easy to be gay in the late nineteenth century but there’s no evidence that in 1893 he was feeling suicidal about it. Or that he could easily poison himself with cholera-infested water intentionally. (There is considerable documentation of all this—it’s much more clear-cut, for example, than Schubert.)

As a musicologist, this kind of myth-making annoys me simply because it’s factually inaccurate. And I think these kinds of readings usually end up hopelessly mired in cliché. But I think it’s more important to ask why Herheim chose this approach for this composer. As the predictably definitive RT explains in detail, this kind of autobiographical reading has been particularly pernicious for Tchaikovsky, reducing his works to a byproduct of his persecution. For his homophobic critics (and he’s had a lot of those) his music is both defined by and damaged by his supposed degeneracy. As the late suicide theory proponent David Brown put it in his analysis, quoted by RT, of Francesca da Rimini, “her [Francesca’s] music becomes possessed with something of the agony that beset his own self. His own emotion overflows, and the whole canvas is indelibly stained.”

Second Card

The problem is that this production isn’t reductive. Herheim, damn him, is poetic, and his sympathies lie very much with (his) Tchaikovsky. His response is not Brown’s homophobic panic but rather a queer spectacle—too beautiful and ambiguous and sad to be as limited as its biopic-level premise suggests it will be. It grows from a kernel of something trite, but I don’t think it’s fair to reduce it to that.

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For one thing, the development of the setup I described above is very complicated. You might think Tchaikovsky is Herman, the tortured main male character, but he’s not. Nor is he Liza, though she’s an obvious mirror and figure of identification to him and dies in a flood from the same poisoned well. (Madame von Meck is involved here somehow.) Herman turns out to be the man Tchaikovsky pays in the opening. Nor is Tchaikovsky just an observer. Later, as the first scene is moving along, Tchaikovsky blithely reveals that he is a baritone and also Prince Yeletsky. Yeletsky, remember, is Liza’s mild-mannered, gentlemanly fiancé who she really can’t get excited about. Both she—and here, Yeletsky/Tchaikovsky, sort of—are way more excited about obvious nutcase and obsessive Herman, the representative of unrestrained id and the only person who seems free to do exactly what he wants.

Herman’s break with reality is no longer the opera’s main theme and Herheim seems relatively uninterested in dramatizing his search for the three cards—that is, the primary plot thread. But the opera’s proto-Symbolist instability is still present in the highly disorienting visuals. Philipp Furhöfer’s set, an apparently solid room, opens and closes like a folding piece of paper, sometimes with mirrors creating an infinite space. The costumes and setting also morph between Tchaikovsky’s 1890s and the opera’s 1790s–the painting above the fireplace keeps switching between a Whistler-like portrait of a woman and a portrait of Catherine the Great. Herman seems to be the most static, grounded in his logical habitat of the 1890s.

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The Mozartian birdcage provides another controlling image. It’s an obvious symbol in itself (possibly alluding to a certain movie from the 90s). But it’s further expanded in a bird-themed rendition of the Mozartian intermezzo, a section that often is treated as an unrelated divertissement but Herheim knows is anything but, and, in his episodic structure, can be another outgrowth of his protagonist’s mind. The manly intruder in the intermezzo, remember, is doubled by Tomsky, whose conventional machismo represents, throughout the opera, a kind of opposite to Tchaikovsky. The composer gives his two women—one a birdy stand-in for Liza and, tellingly, the doubled Polina, a happy ending together. But for Tchaikovsky himself this will not turn out so well: at the end of the intermezzo, we see that his birds have vanished. Finally, the empty cage reappears in Tomsky’s bird-themed Act 3 aria (which Boris Gasparov compares to, yes, “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen”).

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Both the chorus and the leads often sing from pages of Tchaikovsky’s score, as if they are trying to follow a script they have been assigned (notably in Herman and Liza’s big love duet, which isn’t romantic at all). Much of the music, particularly the happy choruses, thus becomes ironic, about fulfilling a prescribed role. The chorus moves together in lockstep at times. All of this is out of Tchaikovsky’s own head, by turns paranoid and trapped–like Hoffmann in Herheim’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, he is haunted by a whole chorus of his doubles (some of whom at one point suffer a quill-centric St. Sebastian incident). When he thinks he is getting a chance to meet Catherine the Great, she turns to reveal herself as Herman in drag. The laughing chorus has invaded the auditorium and an onstage mirror reveals us in the background: we’re shaming Tchaikovsky too.

Third Card

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the pit sounded utterly fabulous, but I wasn’t always convinced by Mariss Jansons’s interpretation. He employed the same super-lyrical style here as he did with Onegin, but Spades is not Onegin. The gentler and quieter parts were utterly gorgeous– that dreamy section near the end of Liza’s Act 1 aria, for example, was beautiful, and the entr’acte into Act 3 was hypnotic. But at times things like the Act 1 storm seemed to demand more drive and darkness. Tempos were also quite slow. Herheim put a big Broadway-style button at the end of Tomsky’s ballad, but Jansons’s tempo was too lugubrious to spark the big, quick applause this piece almost always gets.

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As Herman, Misha Didyk was appropriately unhinged and nasty–there’s very little that’s sympathetic or even pitiful in this interpretation. But vocally he was occasionally underpowered and clearly pacing himself for the big moments. His throaty tenor isn’t a very pretty sound, but mostly he sings with a good sense of musical line and the tension in his voice gives a sense of urgency. The high B at the end of Act 1 came out somewhat under pitch. For vocal beauty, he was outclassed by the two baritones, both of whom were first-rate. Vladimir Stoyanov sang Yeletsky and acted Tchaikovsky with sensitivity and tireless presence, singing the big aria with a rich and smooth sound. He spent most of the performance onstage, I think (he was doubled by ambiguously credited pianist/actor Christiaan Kuyvenhoven, but I think that might have been only in Act 1 Scene 2, the one with the actual piano-playing–if it was more, I couldn’t tell, and Stoyanov is credited in all the images here). As Tomsky, Alexey Markov sounded more dramatic and incisive.

piquedame_cred-orster(16)Svetlana Aksenova made an unusually youthful-looking Liza. She’s a somewhat distant and understated actress and does her work in small details. I could have used a little more at some points. Her smoky middle voice has star quality: it’s distinctive, big, and attractive. Unfortunately she doesn’t seem to have the top to match it and many high notes came out shrill. Anna Goryachova was a charming, not too heavy Polina, here a kind of matching, younger version of Tchaikovsky (but a much happier one because she has no interest in Herman). As the Old Countess, Larissa Diadkova was nicely unsentimental, her aria embodying not a nostalgic old woman but showing why she was a star.

Final Card: The Queen of Spades

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The historicism is dubious—and I felt the need to dwell on it because this will probably come out on DVD and who knows if any other musicologists will write about it on the internet—but this is a touching, sad contemplation of alienation and the closet. There are many striking moments that I have totally skipped: the ornate chandelier belching smoke and violently swinging like a huge censer, the walls folding in on themselves. Best of all is the Old Countess’s memory aria (a quotation of Grétry). She and Tchaikovsky do a slow, intimate dance as she remembers her days in Paris, a momentary connection between two characters who have been, up to this point, desperately alone. She is ultimately entombed in the piano, meaning inside music itself. And that dance pays off in the end. When Yeletsky gets the chance to finish Herman off in the casino, it’s revenge for the Countess’s death. But then we see that it’s not Herman’s body but Tchaikovsky himself. I am still not convinced that this production has actually told us anything about the composer, but he certainly makes a far more sympathetic protagonist that Herman ever will be.

Watch this production online.

If you go to Amsterdam: This is a very accessible opera house, all you have to do is get there. There are even English surtitles! The dress code is casual, possibly the most casual I’ve seen in Europe (maybe related to the huge number of bicycles parked outside). The price of my fifth-row center weeknight ticket was around a third of what a similar seat would cost at the Met, and I only bought it six weeks ahead of time. The house was, however, very full, and seemed to mostly be Dutch speakers.  Productions tend to be on the Regie-side of things. It’s a very pleasant and unpretentious place to see opera.

*I’m not a specialist in Russian music but I consulted three people who are and they independently and unanimously agreed that the suicide theory has zero credibility today. Thanks to EG, EB, and AS. If you want to read about this history of this controversy and have JSTOR, take a look at this exchange between Poznansky and David Brown in Music and Letters in 1998, though almost two decades later it seems that scholarly consensus has come down entirely on Poznansky’s side.

Trailer:

Photos copyright Forster/De Nationale Opera

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5 Comments

  1. Thanks for your awesome review, and I am really looking forward to watching this production!

    I understand your desire to correct the historical record re. Tchaikovsky’s biography so to speak (and it would be nice if the program note wasn’t so disingenuous) but the concept, as you describe it, actually seems quite reasonable to me.

    The question of homophobia, especially internalized homophobia, is something that’s very important, and could use artistic scrutiny. It’s a reality of the gay experience (as an extreme example, it seems like the Pulse gunman may very well have been gay) that is both ignored or blown way out of proportion in a negative manner. But it seems like this production strikes a balance, by both engaging in gay fantasy while also exploring internalized homophobia in a sympathetic way.

    And, most importantly, the idea of Tchaikovsky as an exemplar of such shame, is a very real part of his reception history. I’m actually not at all surprised that the myth of his suicide became popular during the AIDS era. Gay life in the 70’s can be seen as emphasizing pride, liberation, unbridled sexuality, as means to constructing a gay identity that is both positive, but also largely sealed off from the wider society. In the 80’s those very aspects of gay identity contributed to the severity of AIDS, and also the first bits of visibility of the community to the non-gay world, as a community that was defined largely by suffering and death. Historically it seems perfectly reasonable to look back at Tchaikovsky and see an example of internalized homophobia, which then expanded to include a suicide. It’s a story that has a significant base in reality that then fled into fancy, which became enormously symbolically powerful, both in a positive and negative valence.

    While reading the review I was thinking of Herheim’s Parsifal. Just as it is an exploration of German history and production history of Parsifal, it’s as much about thinking about that history from our current vantage point. And so exploring the gay side of Tchaikovsky, including suicide, is a perfectly valid, and in a real since, true exploration of our own understanding of him as a symbol used throughout history. If only it was explicitly spelled out in the program notes that he didn’t kill himself, so the production could more easily be read as about our engagement with the idea and history or internalized homophobia rather than being simply internalized homophobia itself.

  2. As always this a wonderful post and very interesting even amusing speculations about Tchaikovsky’s death. However, it is pretty unlikely that he died after drinking a glass of water contaminated with cholera. Studies have shown that cholera bacteria are easily killed by the normal acidity of the stomach; indeed, when prisoners in a Baltimore prison “volunteered” to drink bacterial cultures, none got diarrhea even when given a glass containing 1 billion cholera bacteria. However, when NaHCO3 (baking soda) was added to the water in the glass (to neutralize stomach acid), only 10,000 bacteria were sufficient to produce cholera. So, maybe Tchaikovsky had a problem producing stomach acid (achlorhydria) which is a pretty rare conditions. Of course, we all believe that contaminated water is the cause of the spread of the disease which raises the question of whether people in the Indian subcontinent, because of malnutrition or some other problem have a defect in acid production in their stomach. This indeed, was found to be the case.

    1. But that Tchaik died from cholera isn’t even disputed by the suicide theory people–they just say he did intentionally. I don’t have Poznansky’s book about his death at hand (https://www.amazon.com/Tchaikovskys-Last-Days-Documentary-Study/dp/019816596X) but my impression was that everyone agreed that there was in fact a fatal glass of water. And I’m not a medical historian but didn’t a LOT of people in Europe die from cholera due to poor water sanitation? I know that by the 1890s it was rare for someone not in poverty to get it, but I really didn’t think there was any dispute that this is what happened. I’m genuinely confused here.

      1. No need for confusion; there is absolutely no doubt that cholera bacteria are transmitted through ingestion of contaminated foods or water. The problem is that you also need something else to neutralize the stomach acid to allow the bugs to grow and bypass the stomach. That is the reason most of the people who get it are poor and malnourished which prevents their ability to acidify their stomach. I was simply questioning the idea that it was a glass of water given to a normally healthy individual that is contaminated. That is highly unlikely. It may have been a glass of milk, which is highly buffered so it will will nullify the stomach acid, or cholera in some of his vegetableswhich are also highly buffered. In the 19th century, one Viennese scientist challenged one of the proponents of the water-born cause of cholera by drinking a glass of water full of cholera vibrios, and of course like the prisoners in Baltimore, he never got sick. This “duel” might actually have set back research in cholera for a couple of decades.

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