About this Recording
8.573015 - TCHAIKOVSKY, P.I.: Queen of Spades Suite (The) / Voyevoda Suite (arr. P. Breiner) (New Zealand Symphony, Breiner)

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
The Queen of Spades • Voyevoda (Orchestral Suites arranged by Peter Breiner)


It is possibly for reasons of language that only two of Tchaikovsky’s operas have found a continuing place in international operatic repertoire. Yevgeny Onegin (Eugene Onegin) and Pikovaya Dama (The Queen of Spades), both based on Pushkin, are more or less familiar to international audiences, while other operas by Tchaikovsky appear only intermittently in major opera houses. Tchaikovsky left ten completed operas, one in two versions. Peter Breiner’s orchestral arrangements of excerpts from two of these operas will do something towards bringing their music into the concert hall to a new audience.

The three-act opera The Queen of Spades was completed in 1890 and first staged in the same year at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. Based on Pushkin, the libretto was by Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest.

In the Summer Garden in St Petersburg friends of Hermann, a young army officer, discuss his strange behaviour, how he watches others gambling, but never takes part. Hermann, entering with Count Tomsky, explains his sadness by his love for a girl whose name he does not know. Prince Yeletsky joins them and is congratulated on his engagement, but Hermann is horrified to find that Yeletsky’s betrothed is the girl with whom he has fallen in love, Lisa, grand-daughter of the old Countess. Count Tomsky tells his friends the story of the Countess and why she never gambles. When she was young in Paris, she had been given the secret of winning at cards and had used this to recoup her fortunes. She has been, thereafter, pledged never to play again, and, having revealed her secret to two others, is to die at the hands of the third to whom she confides it. Hermann is agitated at the story, and now left alone resolves to win the hand of Lisa from Prince Yeletsky by means of the Countess’s secret.

In Lisa’s room at the country house where she and the old Countess live, she and Pauline, with their friends, entertain one another with songs. They are told to restrain themselves by the Governess, sent to them by the Countess. On her balcony, now alone, Lisa has doubts about her betrothal, remembering the young officer she had seen in the park who had looked at her with such intensity. Hermann appears below and the two declare their love for each other, their meeting interrupted by the Countess telling Lisa to go to bed.

The second act is set at a ball. Yeletsky sings to Lisa of his love for her. Hermann is teased by his friends, who suggest that he will be the third man, the one to learn the secret of the Countess. The Master of Ceremonies introduces a pastoral interlude and Lisa tells Hermann how to reach the Countess’s room. There, the same evening, the Countess regrets modern fashions, remembering the past. Hermann breaks in, demanding to learn her secret of winning and threatening her with his revolver. The Countess dies and Lisa, disturbed by the noise, comes in to find that Hermann has apparently used her to learn of the gambler’s secret.

In the third act, at his army quarters, Hermann is distraught. The ghost of the Countess appears to him and tells him the secret, three, seven, ace. By the side of the Winter Canal Lisa waits for Hermann, who appears, as the clock strikes midnight. Their meeting is interrupted, however, when Hermann insists on leaving at once for the gaming-house, where he may use what he has learned. Lisa realises Hermann’s sole obsession and throws herself into the river. In the gaming-house Hermann plays against Yeletsky, staking everything on the last of the three cards, the expected ace. Instead it is the queen of spades that appears, seeming to look at him with the face of the Countess. In final madness he kills himself.

[1] The first excerpt is based on Tomsky’s ballad in the first act, when he tells the story of the Countess. [2] It is followed by a version of Hermann’s arioso in the first act, when he sings of his love for Lisa, whose name he does not yet know, amazing his interlocutors Chekalinsky, addicted to gambling, and Surin, an army officer. [3] The second scene, in Lisa’s room, provides the basis of the third excerpt, when Paulina sings a sad song and Lisa’s friends try to cheer her up with a Russian clapping-song. [4] The fourth excerpt is taken from the third act, where Lisa waits for Hermann. [5] The final scene, in a gambling house, has Tomsky sing a song of love, applauded by the company, who join in a chorus, elements of the sixth excerpt. [6] The sixth extract is based on the final scene of the opera, with Hermann’s aria, and the concluding chorus, praying for his soul. [7] Elements of the end of the first act, with its love scene in Lisa’s room, when she admits to Hermann her love for him, form the final orchestral arrangement.

The first of Tchaikovsky’s operas was Voyevoda (The Provincial Governor), based on Ostrovsky’s comedy Son na Volge (A Volga Dream), written in 1867-68, its libretto originally the work of Ostrovsky and the composer, until Ostrovsky withdrew from the enterprise, leaving Tchaikovsky to reduce the opera from four to three acts, removing the most lively and interesting elements and characters, if we are to accept Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest’s judgement. After Tchaikovsky’s training at Anton Rubinstein’s St Petersburg Conservatory, where he had been among the first graduating class in 1866, he had been appointed by Nikolay Rubinstein to teach harmony at the parallel institution in Moscow. Bearing in mind Tchaikovsky’s relative lack of experience, it is not surprising that the new opera was a failure. The plot of Ostrovsky’s play was far too diffuse to serve as the basis of an opera, and the necessary abridgement of the work made the plot uneventful. The work was staged at the Bolshoy Theatre in 1869 and given five performances before it was withdrawn. Tchaikovsky finally destroyed it, having made use of elements from the score in his ballet Swan Lake and in the opera Oprichnik in the early 1870s. Voyevoda was reconstructed in 1937 by Sergey Popov, using surviving sketches and orchestral and choral parts, and again in 1949 by Pavel Lamm, with the composers Visarion Shebalin and Yuri Kochurov, to a newly devised libretto.

The opera is set in the mid-seventeenth century in a town on the Volga. The opening scene is the garden of Dyuzhoy, a rich merchant. His daughter Praskovya is to marry Shaligin, the Voyevoda; her nurse Nedviga disapproves, while her sister Mariya is impatient for her own marriage and sings a tale of a girl, imprisoned in a tower, but, as she improvises in a new ending, united with her lover, while her parents and guards sleep. Mariya’s lover Bastryukov tries to gain admittance, serenades her and is accepted as her future husband, although the opposition of his enemy, the Voyevoda, is anticipated. They pledge fidelity, but are interrupted by the arrival of the Voyevoda, with Dyuzhoy and his wife, with the Jester. Bastryukov hides, while the Voyevoda demands to see his future wife again, a breach of convention. Mariya rushes in, after an encounter in the bushes with the Jester, who has left the company when no drink came his way. The Voyevoda immediately finds her more acceptable as a wife than her sister, and Dyuzhoy agrees to allow him to marry her. When they have all gone, Bastryukov emerges and, betrayed by the Jester, is only protected from arrest by his servants. The act ends with all determined to achieve their own aims.

The second act opens in the entrance hall of Bastryukov ’s house. He is sad at the loss of his beloved Mariya. Dubrovin enters. He has been forced to become a fugitive, after the Voyevoda took his wife and ruined him and will now help Bastryukov. It seems that the Voyevoda is to leave the next day on a pilgrimage and his wife, Olyona, and Mariya will wait in the garden for rescue. The scene changes to the Voyevoda’s house. Mariya sings of a girl imprisoned and of a nightingale, and freedom. She is joined by Olyona, who explains her own predicament; they are to await rescue the following night.

In the third act, set at night in a courtyard, Bastryukov and Dubrovin have made the guards drunk and prepare to carry out their plan. They are joined by Mariya and Olyona, the latter united once more with Dubrovin. They are interrupted by the unexpected return of the Voyevoda, who threatens death and drags Mariya away. Matters are resolved by a deus ex machina in the person of a new Voyevoda, who appears in the nick of time, ensuring a happy ending for the lovers.

[8] The first excerpt orchestrated is taken partly from the opening of the second act, with elements drawn from the preceding scene. [9] The second is Bastryukov’s serenade of Mariya in the first act. [10] This is followed by the duet between Dubrovin and Olyona in the third act, when they foresee their future happiness together. [11] The third act provides the fourth excerpt with Dubrovin’s opening aria in which he reveals his plan to rescue Olyona and wonders whether she still loves him. [12] The fifth excerpt is taken from the opening of the second scene of the second act, when maidens dance around Mariya, now a prisoner of the Voyevoda. [13] The series of extracts ends with an orchestration based on the Overture, which establishes the Russian nature of the story to come.

Keith Anderson

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