The Dutch National Opera’s new production of Tchaikovsky’s Pique dame by Stefan Herheim proves that the right director can turn a meh opera into a great work of art. Musically a conventional garden-variety nineteenth century work with a sprinkling of melodramatic accents of storm, otherworldly sightings, unrequited love arias and pastiche, in Herheim’s hands becomes a moving meditation on the closet, artistic creation and sublimation, and loneliness.
The letter of the libretto has it that the gambling-addicted, impecunious Hermann falls in love with an aristocratic friend’s fiancée Liza, but after winning her over realizes his priorities are elsewhere: trading his soul for the fail-proof card combination from Liza’s grandmother, the aged Countess. She had herself paid for it in dearly but willingly as a young gambling addict. Hermann gets it eventually from the dead woman’s ghost—the actual Countess having died in horror when he tried to pry the numbers out of her. There are a handful of male characters who always appear together, among whom Liza’s original fiancé, Yeletsky—a one-aria role, all in all. They reconvene for the final scene at the gambling house (Liza’s also dead at this point, having thrown herself in the Winter Canal) and Yeletsky challenges him to a duel. Before Hermann completes his winnings with the third card, the Countess appears as his actual ‘final card’, Queen of Spades, after which he too dies.
Herheim’s Dame starts in Tchaikovsky’s living room, variations of which are the set for the opera. First scene is a silent one. Stage right, the composer is performing fellatio on an indifferent man (both are completely clothed) who’s agreed to it in exchange for money. The man recoils at the composer’s shy attempt to kiss his hand, and leaves laughing in his face. It’s at this point that Tchaikovsky sits at the piano and starts composing the opera Pique dame which we are about to watch as it’s being composed. The hateful man who doesn’t acknowledge his existence is transposed into Hermann (sung by Misha Didyk), the character who destroys lives and is incapable of love. Is he perhaps akin to the figure of the masculine, emotionally inscrutable Top that appears in a number of cultural creations by gay men (Patrice Chéreau’s Ceux qui m’aiment prendrons le train, and Xavier Dolan’s Tom à la ferme are just two examples)? The composer himself is present in most scenes, sometimes conducting the chorus, other times “playing” at the piano what the orchestra of a future performance—our own—is playing full-on. He also appears as an actual character, if not very frequently: as a gentle, self-effacing Yeletsky (sung by Vladimir Stoyanov).
There’s no consensus on how Tchaikovsky died, but some have argued that he intentionally drank the cholera-contaminated water so he would avoid an ignominious public outing. Herheim made the contaminated glass of water a recurring symbol in the opera: the menacing male chorus members keep carrying the glasses around and offering them to the composer at the drop of a hat; Liza dies awash in it; the Countess too drinks her own glass. There is a lot of public shaming and laughing at the composer—Hermann is a figure of fun by the other men of the pack, but he commands some degree of respect: it’s the composer who’s despised. In the scene of the Empress’ entrance, he bows and kisses her hand, and the Empress takes off her clothes to reveal Hermann in drag, to the delight of the jeering crowds.
While Ken Russell’s Music Lovers imagines a Tchaikovsky horrified by women and women’s bodies, Herheim’s Tchaikovsky is clearly more at ease with women than with anybody in the pack. He is present in the sweet scene with Liza (Svetlana Aksenova) and her best friend Polina (Anna Goryachova) while they sing to each other. Polina is reinvented as a trouser role and the two women are amourous friends and each other’s favourites. That, and another scene with Tchaikovsky observing/creating/enjoying two women, are two gentlest, least emotionally problematic scenes that even have something idyllic about them. The second scene is the Daphnis & Chloe play-within-a-play (glorious Goryachova returning as Daphnis, with Pelageya Kurennaya) supposed to be happening at a ball, but here starts in the intimacy of Tchaikovsky’s room and only later turns into a performance of the naturalness of heterosexuality for the crowd at the ball. Musically the piece is a pastiche of Mozart’s Pappageno and Pappagena, and there are many other nods to the Rococo and Mozart in the opera which Herheim honours.
The Dame libretto was written by Tchaikovsky’s equally gay brother Modest, but Herheim makes a shortcut here for dramatic effect: the composer is the absolute creator of his work, libretto included. He is indeed in many ways all of his characters, but he is closest to and voices most directly the leading women, Liza and the Countess. There is so much love and tenderness towards these two, the darling tomboy Polina as well. And they love him back. Hermann is relatively insignificant in the scene of the Countess’s death: it’s her show, and deeply felt goodbye to the world.
All naturalness is removed from the scene in which Hermann and Liza declare each other’s love. Herheim has them reading their words off the composer-supplied score, as if trying out a staging approach to the roles they’ve just been assigned. Hermann, rightly, loses his centrality in the final scene as well: it’s in fact the composer who dies at the end of the opera as the chorus, hypocritically, sings “Give rest to his turbulent troubled spirit”.
No actual playing cards appear once in the production. The men in the final gambling scene deal in sheets of Tchaikovsky’s score.
Musically, things were less thrilling, but this fact didn’t spoil anything. Legendary Mariss Jansons conducted the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the pit and I expected fireworks, but it could be that this music is incapable of fireworks? It was all rather… adequate. The were minor issues of the odd instance of lateness and of the stage and orchestra coordination. Didyk’s was a barely audible Hermann and lost his centrality to the story in this way too. The Pack were uniformly good, if dramatically fairly insignificant. Aksenova’s Liza and Goryachova’s Polina were complex, multi-dimensional characters—often literally, Polina as Daphnis/Pappageno and Aksenova as an angel of compassion appearing to the composer. Larissa Diadkova’s Countess was decidedly not an ogre, but a thinking, feeling creature succumbing under the weight of the Weltschmerz.