Obsession, ill fate and tragedy in Lyric Opera's The Queen of Spades

When money comes first, it never ends well. When money comes first, human life is depreciated. "Three cards, three cards," repeated obsessed Gherman in Tchaikovsky's famous opera The Queen of Spades. He thought that three cards would bring him money in a card game. Instead, they brought three deaths.

Lyric Opera of Chicago, one of the most reputable cultural institutions in the country, is happy to present a new-to-Chicago production of The Queen of Spades. Two more performances are left, at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, February 26, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 1.

This masterpiece is truly Russian. It is written by Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky with libretto by his brother Modest Tchaikovsky and is based on the novella by famous Russian poet and writer Alexander Pushkin. For almost four hours, the Lyric Opera's audiences have a chance to hear this opera performed in the Russian language with projected English translations right in the heart of Chicago, one of the most diverse cities in America.

As any Russian composition, this opera has a deep dramatic meaning with the main characters going through inner struggle, constant psychological battle and searching for the sense of life. What is life about? Is it about love, money, passion, or maybe it is simply about having luck? Is it about all of these components combined together? "Life is but a game," proclaims Gherman, one of the main characters, at the end of the opera. Basically, that's how he lives. His life is a game; sometimes exciting, sometimes dramatic and exhausting, and finally tragic at the end. Every Russian knows this popular musical quotation from The Queen of Spades, which literally translates as "What is our life? A game!" This phrase became a popular proverb that starts a famous Russian television show that is watched even outside of Russia.

Let's put it this way - in Russia, people are raised on The Queen of Spades and on many other Russian masterpieces. These timeless creations are in our blood; they are in our genetic code. So, as a native Russian, I was really excited to attend this production and write a review of it.

What was I looking for? For something authentically Russian, deep and touching; something that makes you think and analyze even after you leave the opera house, and something that leaves that special feeling in your soul. Did the directors succeed in making this production authentically Russian? It depends on their goal, and generally talking their goal was achieved.

First of all, I would sincerely like to praise Maestro Andrew Davis and the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus. This score is both challenging and exciting - technically, dramatically and developmentally, and as always Sir Andrew, the musicians from the Lyric Opera Orchestra and the Lyric Opera Chorus, prepared by Michael Black, showed high level of mastery, a deep understanding of the composer's intentions and the main idea of the opera. Such an immersion into musical material comes with hard work, extensive experience and sincere attitude, and all these outstanding professionals showed their superb qualification and extreme passion for music.

Chicago Children's Choir deserves a special attention. Prepared by Chicago Children's Choir President and Artistic Director Josephine Lee, these talented young singers and actors were touching and sincere, and their participation in this production beautified it. This wonderful organization has a long-term relationship with Lyric Opera of Chicago and has participated in its twelve productions since 2000/2001.

Tchaikovsky came to composing this opera in an unusual way. His brother Modest was asked by composer Nikolai Klenovsky to write libretto based on Pushkin's story called The Queen of Spades, while Tchaikovsky originally didn't show much interest in it. However, later Klenovsky chose to quit working on it. After that, the Director of the Imperial Theatres in Russia Ivan Vsevolozhsky didn't just ask Tchaikovsky to write music for this opera but urged him to finish it by the beginning of the next season. Tchaikovsky finally agreed to start working on The Queen of Spades and even applied some changes to the libretto. He went to Florence and finished this opera just in 44 days!

The premiere took place on December 19, 1890 at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg; soon it was also performed at the Kiev Opera Theatre and later at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.

The story is set in late eighteenth-century Saint Petersburg. Gherman, a young officer, falls in love with a beautiful girl without even knowing who she is. His friend, Count Tomsky, tells him that the girl's name is Lisa and that her grandmother is an old countess who used to play cards for money when she was young. Prince Yeletsky announces that he just got engaged with Lisa. Gherman is upset about it but soon finds out that people used to call the grandmother the "Queen of Spades" because she knows a secret of how to always win at card games. Gherman wants to find out this secret, win lots of money, and marry Lisa. He hides in the grandmother's bedroom and appears in front of her asking about the three cards, but she gets scared and dies before answering his question.

Later, when Gherman is unable to sleep, the ghost of the Countess comes to Gherman and tells him the three secret cards: Three, Seven, Ace. His obsession for cards outshines his feelings for Lisa, who loves him, and she commits suicide. Meanwhile, a group of men gathers at the gambling house. Gherman gambles all his money, singing "Life is but a game!" The first two cards are the Three and the Seven, but the third card is not the Ace, it is the Queen of Spades. Gherman recognizes the features of the old Countess on the card; her ghost came again. Gherman shoots himself and dies begging for forgiveness.

What surprised me is that this production instead of totally immersing into the times of Empress Catherine the Great has some reflection of "a fascist period of the 1930s," as revival director Benjamin Davis wrote in the program book. It seemed unnecessary and unrelated to the story and I think it would surprise both Pushkin and Tchaikovsky. A huge portrait of the Countess showing her face when she was young was pretty impressive, though, and it was touching when it changed to an old face and, after her death, to a face of a dead person with closed eyes.

This opera is one of the greatest operas ever composed. Its incomparable dramatic strength, deep immersion into the hidden corners of the human soul, and sophisticated presentation of the inner world of the main characters require them to reflect it artistically, vocally and emotionally. Although it would be nice to have some Russian-speaking actors on stage singing in Russian without an accent, Lyric Opera presents an outstanding cast in this production that makes it world-class and superb.

Sondra Radvanovsky, the internationally renowned American soprano, makes her role debut representing Lisa in this production. Her brilliant high notes, superb breathing technique, and overall artistic presentation impressed the audience. She was outstanding in singing arioso "Why these tears" in Act 1 and "I am worn out by grief" in Act 3 and generally demonstrated her great emotional attachment to the heroine, her outstanding vocal skills, and superb artistic presentation.

The role of Gherman is portrayed by the renowned American tenor Brandon Jovanovich. This role is extremely complicated both technically and emotionally, but Jovanovich handled this task with extreme mastery. The arias "I don't even know her name" and "Forgive me, celestial creature" touched everyone's heart, and the famous aria "Life is but a game" in his presentation gave me personally goosebumps. World-class artist with an amazing voice that blows everyone's mind away!

The only remark that I would like to make is about the scene at the end of Act 1 when Gherman is talking to Lisa in her bedroom. The music is full of dramatism and deep emotions, Lisa says "No, live!" when Gherman asks her whether he should die or not, after that he sings "My beauty, my goddess! Angel of heaven!" And then the 'angel' for some reason starts unbuttoning his pants... It immediately put that heavenly music back to earth and redirected attention from the human heart and soul to some other parts, which seemed unnecessary. Thank God, this episode didn't last long.

This production brought to Lyric's stage Jane Henschel, the Wisconsin-born mezzo-soprano who portrayed the old Countess. This wonderful singer is celebrated internationally in a highly varied repertoire, but performing at Lyric Opera House became for Henschel her Lyric debut. She was beautiful in her role of Lisa's grandmother and even raised the feeling of compassion and empathy to the old lady. She was especially touching when her heroine reminisced about the better times of her youth singing in French "Je crains de lui parler la nuit" and Laurette's Aria from André Grétry's opera Richard Cœur-de-Lion.

The role of Prince Yeletsky was masterfully performed by acclaimed American baritone Lucas Meachem. The aria "I love you beyond measure" is a masterpiece by itself, and Meachem performed it with unbelievable elegance, inner energy and passion. The role of Pauline, Lisa's friend, was fantastically performed by American mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong. She brilliantly demonstrated the depth of her beautiful voice and her nice timbre while performing romance "Lovely lady friends." American mezzo-soprano Jill Grove found the best way to portray Governess and American tenor Kyle Van Schoonhoven made his Lyric debut portraying Chekalinsky. American bass-baritone David Weigel was perfect portraying Sourin, along with other talented artists whose voices and brilliant stage appearance added bright musical strokes into the rich palette of Tchaikovsky's complicated story of love, obsession and ill fate.

The role of Count Tomsky was presented by South Korean bass-baritone Samuel Youn with a great success. Rapidly gaining recognition on the major opera stages around the world, Youn found the best way to portray this role both vocally and artistically. He was fantastic singing aria "Once in Versailles" in Act 1 and masterfully presented the song "If pretty girls could fly like birds" in Act 3.

While he was singing, a dancer appeared on stage and started moving in a very suggestive and unnecessarily sexualized way. It lasted for a while and totally distracted from the music and from the main idea of the opera. Modernizing operatic works is generally a good idea, but oftentimes it changes the whole concept of the opera and depreciates its value. It might be good to remember eternal wisdom expressed in Luke 5:39 that says: "No one wants new wine after drinking old wine. They say, 'The old wine is better.'" There were a few people who got up and left during that dance; so obviously the dance was pleasant for some but unpleasant for others.

Certainly, it is important to mention puppetry in this production. It was a great decision to use puppets as their appearance, movements and the overall presentation matched that particular part of the opera, underlined the tenderness of the music, and was generally touching and sincere, although ballet dancers are used for this episode in some other productions. After the performance, I spoke with a few audience members and several of them particularly told me that they liked the puppets. I can only nod to puppetry director Chris Pirie and to the puppeteers Taylor Bibat, Sean Garratt, Tom Lee and Amy Rose, for whom the participation in this production became their Lyric debut. Chris Pirie also acted as a puppeteer and celebrated his Lyric debut. Another interesting finding was a huge Skeleton puppet that represented the old grandmother after her death. The Skeleton wasn't scary after all and even raised some laughter in the audience.

What is the secret of Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades? As Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Modest when he finished his opera in just 44 days, "Laroche wrote to me that he and Nápravník grumble that I have finished so quickly. How could they not understand that fast work is my intransient quality? I cannot work anything other than quickly. But the speed does not mean at all that I have written the opera in an off-hand way… The trick is to write with love. And The Queen of Spades was written with particular love. My God, how tearful I was yesterday when my poor Gherman was given the last rites!"

This is the key to Tchaikovsky's talent and the success of all his compositions, and particularly of this one. It is LOVE. The Queen of Spades is written from all his passionate Russian heart full of endless love. The great gift of love is the answer to all human struggles and problems. Gherman lost in the card game because the name of the power that he chose to follow was obsession. If love would have been directing him through his life, he would have won; won over death.

For tickets and information, please go to or call 312-827-5600. Please be advised, The Queen of Spades contains mature themes.

Natalia Dagenhart

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