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Glück, Spiel, Zwang - Deutsche Oper Berlin

Fortune, Gambling, Compulsion

Director Sam Brown in conversation with Konstantin Parnian

As an epigraph for his tale, Pushkin chose the sentence, “The Queen of Spades means secret ill-will”. Would Tchaikovsky sign this statement regarding his opera as well?

Sam Brown: Tchaikovsky focuses far more on Herman’s obsession, which begins the very moment he first hears about the secret of the cards. When Tomsky first tells the tale in his ballad, he drops the Countess’s pet name, “Queen of Spades”, rather incidentally. Then the name is not really mentioned anymore, but it has burned itself into Herman’s consciousness to such a degree that in the end, he bets everything on the Queen of Spades instead of the Ace, thereby losing everything. In Tchaikovsky’s version, therefore, the “Queen of Spades” stands for the fate we cannot escape. Ultimately, the opera is about characters who are desperately trying to escape their fate, even though they really know this is impossible. That makes the piece so fascinating. All three main figures die during the course of the action, and interestingly, they all seem to sense that from the start. That makes this opera so unique and spellbinding.

How does that fit with a story named for a playing card?

This fatalism which hovers over everything can also be found in the symbolism often ascribed to playing cards during this era. During the 19th century, fortune-telling by laying cards such as the tarot was widespread; in general, playing cards were thought to have some magic element. So one may assume that the notion that the Queen of Spades stood for something negative or evil was widely held. The idea of an unalterable fate is also reflected in the card game faro, which is played in the story. Once the cards have been shuffled, the result cannot be changed. It is one of the very few games which are subject to absolute coincidence. Unlike poker or even blackjack, you cannot employ tactics or strategy: is a matter of luck alone which side wins. And still, Herman, as we learn in the beginning, spends entire nights at the card tables, observing the gambling without participating, as if he were searching for a surefire way to win the game. There is no such way. The fact that he never bets even one penny during his observation also demonstrates Herman’s extreme aversion against risk. The same caution has led him never to speak to Lisa, even though he feels drawn to her. Herman is an observer who never turns to action. Like for the card game, he also develops an obsession for Lisa, rather than love. All this changes suddenly when he learns the Countess’s secret of the cards. Now he finds the courage to confront Lisa with his love, whereas before that, he only observed, behaving almost like a stalker.

What does the story of the secret of the cards spark in Herman, so that his character undergoes such drastic change from that point onwards?

The hope for social ascendancy, for wealth. In our production, Herman doesn’t even have his own room, but lives in the barracks’ dormitory. He longs for a life that has always been withheld from him, from which he is excluded because of his social status. He may have contact with the richer circles, but he does not really belong. The money he bets at the gaming table in the end is his entire fortune which he has saved up, or – if we go with Pushkin’s version – inherited from his father. Compared to today, it might be enough to buy a small car, but it is certainly not a sum to quit your job and live on it. This intermediate state – participating in wealth on the one hand, yet still living precariously – is one we can easily identify with today. I don’t know the figures for Germany, but in the UK, the median income is around £30,000 a year. So it’s possible to work from age 20 to 65, 45 years in a row, and still have very little. In this sense, Herman is an Everyman, making just enough from his work for a decent life, but nothing more. His position, as an outsider who spends a lot of time in society despite this, makes him very relatable, since we all know the feeling of being excluded from one situation or another.

So is Herman simply a victim of society or is he at least partially responsible for his situation?

Herman’s problem is that he always thinks: if only I had this or that, I would finally be happy. But we know that that’s not the way to be happy. To put it in a phrase used by psychoanalysis, which came up at the same time THE QUEEN OF SPADES was written, he has an inner problem which he projects outwards. For in his perception, everyone around him is always a winner. Yeletsky, whom he meets in the first scene, represents everything Herman wants. He is rich, respected and moreover, he is engaged to the woman Herman desires. During the course of the opera, we realize that Yeletsky is not happy either, because Lisa does not feel the love for him he had hoped for. Herman, however, refuses to see this; he only sees the perfect side of other people’s lives. Such a perception, of course, is very topical today, when you look at social media platforms such as Instagram, where everyone pretends to have an immaculate life: the perfect relationship, meals in the best restaurants, nonstop vacations. We know that is not the whole truth, but Herman lives in a kind of Instagram reality, where he only sees the things about others which he himself lacks. The most fascinating thing is that Herman tries to enter the very world from which Lisa is trying to escape. Lisa has status, money and the prospect of a lifelong romantic partnership with a man who cares for her. The very thing Herman longs for makes Lisa feel constricted. She feels oppressed by it. That’s why Herman, who is outside this world, catches her interest. The man she is promised to, Yeletsky, is attractive, famous, rich and emotionally stable. In his famous aria in Act II, he expresses his feelings for Lisa in a loving way, but remains absolutely in control. He explains that he does not wish to dominate or subjugate her. On the other side is Herman, who breaks into her bedroom through a window, a romantic in the vein of Goethe’s Werther. This touches her profoundly because it breaks through the boundaries of her daily life, which she feels to be a prison.

Does that mean Lisa is looking for someone like Herman, to encounter such passion?

On the contrary, I believe that Lisa has long felt such passion, but was never able to express it. We see her with her girlfriends, singing canzone and folk songs. Yet when she is alone, an incredibly passionate aria bursts from her lips. We see her articulate something that she has only become able to express because she has looked Herman in the eye, having only seen him from afar previously. This encounter with Herman is her emotional awakening. The world portrayed in THE QUEEN OF SPADES is dominated by strictly defined roles. Everyone has their place in this society, which is what the first scene with the children is about. They represent a kind of model society. This is the world Lisa is trying to escape.

Are these worlds also reflected in the music?

Tchaikovsky manages an ingenious balancing act: on the one hand, he assembles a musical pasticcio of very different styles; on the other, he manages to combine these parts so well that the rapid changes from one world to another seem very organic. That is also due to the incredible density of the piece, in which there is not one note too many. There is no fat in this music. The sound is often very illustrative, and different social circles or milieus are conveyed by indirect musical quotations. Thus, in the beginning we hear marching music, or later at the barracks the tattoo, but there also more exotic excursions. The Countess’s song, for example, in which she indulges in her memories of life in the salons of Paris, quotes an opera by the Belgian composer André Grétry of 1784, introducing a sphere all its own. Not only because she suddenly sings in French, but also because the music sounds almost foreign in this overall context. To a late-19th-century audience, this must have seemed as if we heard a chanson such as “Non, je ne regrette rien” interpolated into an opera today. Another example are the folksongs mentioned above, which are sung in Lisa’s bedroom and would clearly have been recognized as such as the time. Musical quotations are always to be taken with a dash of humour, opening the possibility for cheerful and entertaining passages. The bedroom scene follows the very dramatic end of the previous one, in which a tempest underscores Herman’s torn feelings. The dramaturgical structure is a quick succession of different feelings. Shortly thereafter, we see Lisa’s friends frolicking, which has a certain comic value. That too, however, is fractured, for in their midst is Lisa, lonely and melancholy. The same thing happened to Herman on the promenade while the chorus was praising the beautiful sunny day. The idea behind this is that forced happiness can be a means of oppression. Both Lisa and Herman experience this oppression. When they meet, they are no longer willing to endure it, but decide to pursue their true feelings, their passions.


Translation: Alexa Nieschlag

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