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Queen Of Spades-Study Notes

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Based on Alexander Pushkin's 1833 short story, Tchaikovsky's penultimate operatic work is a musically idiosyncratic mixture of his recognizable orchestral style with elements of pastiche. Not renowned as a composer of opera, Tchaikovsky had hit a bullseye with a previous Pushkin adaptation, Eugene Onegin in 1879. Admitting an irresistible attraction to operatic form in spite of his inability to master it, the maestro used the folk origins of Pushkin's verse novel to present a series of interlinked scenes rather than a fully realized grand opera. The Queen of Spades followed in 1890, and was again a success (though others in between were not). More formally rigorous than Onegin yet not entirely traditional, it offered a mixture of traditional themes and motifs with moments of surprise and even self parody.

The opera departs from Pushkin's original story quite significantly. In both versions Hermann, a young soldier, is haunted by the rumor of a mysterious secret of an unbeatable sequence of cards. In Pushkin, he stops at nothing to learn the secret from the elderly countess who is said to know it, including seducing her ward Lizaveta to gain access to her. His dreams seem thwarted when he frightens her to death before she can reveal it, but he is then visited by her ghost, who orders him to marry the girl and play the cards exactly. The countess has the last laugh however when the final card turns out to be not the promised ace, but a winking Queen of Spades, which drives Hermann mad and sends the ward into a dull marriage to "a very amiable young man in the service of the state."

Michael Dungan reads Tchaikovsky's more romantic interpretation of the story (from a libretto by his brother Modest) as a response to the composer's empathy with the central character. Over the years Hermann's passion and shame has been read as a masked response to Tchaikovsky's homosexuality. But as Dungan notes, homosexuality was less socially taboo in nineteenth century Russian high society



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