Sunday, April 24, 2022

Berliner Philharmonie, Herbert-von-Karajan-Straße, Berlin

With The Queen of Spades/Pique Dame (Opus 68, to a libretto after Pushkin’s novella), the Berliner Philharmoniker and Kirill Petrenko completed their Tchaikovsky triptych of operas this season, which previously included and


In a park, Sourin and Tchekalinsky discuss the strange behavior of their fellow officer Hermann. He seems obsessed with gambling, watching his friends play all night, though he never plays himself. Hermann appears with Count Tomsky and admits to him that he is in love with a girl whose name he doesn’t know. When Prince Yeletsky enters, followed by his fiancée, Lisa, and her grandmother, the old countess, Hermann is shocked to realize that Lisa is his unknown girl. After Yeletsky and the women have left, Tomsky tells the others the story of the countess. Decades ago in Paris, she won a fortune at the gambling table with the help of “the three cards,” a mysterious winning combination. She only ever shared this secret with two other people, and there is a prophecy that she will die at the hands of a third person who will force the secret from her. The men laugh at the story except for Hermann, who is deeply affected by it and decides to learn the countess’s secret.

Lisa thinks about her ambivalent feelings for her fiancé and the impression Hermann has made on her. To her shock, he suddenly appears on the balcony. He declares his love and begs her to have pity on him. Lisa gives in to her feelings and confesses that she loves him too.


Yeletsky has noticed a change in Lisa’s behavior. During a ball, he assures her of his love. Hermann, who is also among the guests, has received a note from Lisa, asking him to meet her. Sourin and Tchekalinsky tease him with remarks about the “three cards.” Lisa slips Hermann the key to a garden door that will lead him to her room and through the countess’s bedroom. She says the old lady will not be there the next day, but Hermann insists on coming that very night, thinking that fate is handing him the chance to learn the countess’s secret.

In the countess’s bedroom, Hermann looks fascinated at a portrait of her as a young woman. He hides as the old lady returns from the ball and, reminiscing about her youth, falls asleep in an armchair. She awakens when Hermann suddenly steps before her and demands to know the secret of the cards. The countess refuses to talk to him, and when Hermann, growing desperate, threatens her with a pistol, she dies of fright. Lisa rushes in. Horrified at the sight of her dead grandmother, she realizes that all Hermann was interested in was the countess’s secret.


Hermann is descending into obsession. In his quarters, he reads a letter from Lisa asking him to meet her at midnight. He recalls the countess’s funeral and suddenly her ghost appears, telling him that he must save Lisa and marry her. The ghost says that his lucky cards will be three, seven, and the ace.

Lisa waits for Hermann by a canal, wondering if he still loves her. When he at last appears, she says they should leave the city together. Hermann refuses, replying that he has learned the secret of the cards and is on his way to the gambling house. Lisa realizes that she has lost him and drowns herself in the canal.

The officers are playing cards, joined by Yeletsky, who has broken off his engagement to Lisa. Hermann enters, distracted, and immediately bets 40,000 rubles. He wins on his first two cards, a three and a seven. Upsetting the others with his maniacal expression, he declares that life is a game. For the final round, he bets on the ace but loses when his card is revealed as the queen of spades. Horrified and imagining the countess’s face staring at him from the card, Hermann stabs himself, asking for Yeletsky and Lisa’s forgiveness.

Tchaikovsky’s tenth and penultimate opera (which premiered in 1890) has claims to be even greater than Eugene Onegin

Having recently given staged performances of The Queen of Spades in Baden-Baden, the Berliners and Petrenko returned home for two concerts of this opera, of which this was the second, the singers able to focus on the music supplemented by their recent experience of acting and having been directed.

From the off this was an atmospheric and suggestive rendition, the music-making pulsating with purpose – played marvellously (Petrenko impassioned and insightful) and sung superbly. Once passed the suspenseful orchestral introduction, painting all sorts of pictures, the opening children’s chorus was well-drilled (drawing paternal smiles from Petrenko) and the solo singing was significant in its lyricism, characterisations and interactions.

Flexible pacing and emotional urgency were key to an absorbing listening experience (aided by the surtitles) and each voice was ‘just right’ for the role, not least Doris Soffel as the imperious Countess, with the Philharmoniker and Petrenko sustaining dramatic tension throughout (a single interval deemed to be sufficient, which occurred after more than ninety minutes, halfway through Act II), increasing and decreasing as appropriate, growing in thunder as Hermann’s obsession with the cards worsens, contrasted with the initial pastoral presentation of Liza until her girlhood dreams turn to oppression and fear, and revealing what a great and complex score this is (such as Act III’s lower-string introduction, dark woodwind colours, ethereal chorus, eeriness, and eruptive orchestral fortissimos). Passions soared, famous arias were new-minted, and set-piece entertainment leapt off the page, a divertissement in contrast with threatening confrontations, madness and suicides – and they were thrilling.

Given this Spades success, and similarly with the previous two relays, each of the three operas being an enjoyable education, I very much hope that that the Philharmoniker will issue these stage-works in a handsome box set of CDs and DVDs: as ever from the Digital Concert Hall the sound and picture were excellent.

Arsen Soghomonyan tenor (Herman)

Vladislav Sulimsky baritone (Count Tomsky)

Boris Pinkhasovich baritone (Prince Yeletsky)

Doris Soffel contralto (Countess)

Elena Stikhina soprano (Lisa)

Aigul Akhmetshina mezzo-soprano (Polina)

Christophe Poncet de Solages tenor (Chaplitsky)

Margarita Nekrasova contralto (Governess)

Anatoli Sivko baritone (Surin)

Jevgenij Akimov tenor (Chekalinsky)

Mark Kurmanbayev bass (Narumov)

Slovak Philharmonic Choir

Cantus Juvenum Karlsruhe

Berliner Philharmoniker Pique Dame: Cancellation Bezgodkova | Stikhina to step in.

Berliner Philharmoniker: Elena Bezgodkova to replace Asmik Grigorian in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades.