In Royal Flush, Anthony Holden, biographer, critic and poker ace, examines card games in opera from The Queen of Spades to La fanciulla del West.
Himself an avid card-player, Tchaikovsky would probably be more amused than appalled to know that his music has been hijacked as the theme-tune to one of Russia’s most popular TV quiz shows. During the opening credits of What? Where? When?, a tenor voice sings «Что наша жизнь? Игра!» – literally, ‘What is our life? A game!’, more often translated as ‘Life is but a game’. This, of course, is the desperate sentiment expressed by Hermann in Act 3 of Pikovaya Dama.
Although The Queen of Spades is but one of several operas to depict gambling, specifically with cards, it is unmatched even by Prokofiev’s setting of Dostoyevsky’s roulette novella, The Gambler, in its stress on the destructive powers of compulsive gambling. ‘Three, seven, Ace! Three, seven, Queen!’ – Hermann’s obsession with those fateful ‘three cards, three cards!’ sees him wind up mad and his beloved, Lisa, in the River Neva. Even the Countess who posthumously yields up her secret formula had lost everything at a card-game called faro before using her sexual wiles to extract it from a French count.
In Pushkin’s original short story, Hermann’s love affair with Lisa is more calculated and manipulative than the genuine passion of the opera; she is, moreover, the Countess’s ward rather than her grand-daughter. These changes were made by Tchaikovsky and his librettist, his brother Modest, to lend the relationship a more obviously operatic charge; and where Pushkin consigns Hermann to the madhouse and Lisa to another husband, the Tchaikovskys go for terminal closure with a double suicide. But the obsession with gambling remains at the heart of both versions, in a way that still seems to us distinctively Russian.
Stravinsky also has a three-card motif at the end of The Rake’s Progress, where another Queen (of Hearts, this time) saves Tom Rakewell’s soul in a life-and-death card game with Nick Shadow. But America and the rest of Europe also share Russia’s fascination with a flutter, onstage as off, and its usefulness at pivotal moments in opera plots. Almost half a century before The Queen of Spades, Verdi had his hero, Alfredo, win a large sum of money from Baron Douphol, his rival for the attentions of Violetta in La traviata, Verdi’s adaptation of Dumas fils’ novel La dame aux Camélias. Eventually, after Alfredo has used his winnings to insult her in public, Violetta throws them back in his face. In his splashy staging for Birmingham Opera, Graham Vick had his Princess Di-like Violetta, a creature of the celebrity age, make her grand entrance through an arcade of giant playing-cards.
Twenty years after The Queen of Spades, Puccini came up with opera’s first game of poker at a critical moment in La Fanciulla del West, based on David Belasco’s play The Girl of the Golden West. The sole female character in the only opera set in the Wild West, Minnie, is naturally being pursued by both the bandit and the sheriff who’s out to get him. At the end of the second act the wounded desperado, Dick Johnson, is hiding in the rafters of Minnie’s log cabin when the sheriff, name of Rance, arrives to collar him. Our heroine is just protesting that she has no idea where Johnson is when drops of his blood fall from above on Rance, who promptly drags him out of his hiding-place.
In desperation, Minnie makes a bold suggestion: that they sort it all out over a game of poker (‘Una partita a poker!’). If Rance wins, he gets Minnie but lets Johnson go; if Minnie wins, she gets Johnson and they go free. The crafty girl knows that the sheriff is a bit of a gambler; so Rance agrees to this – foolishly, as it transpires, for Minnie conceals some aces in her garter, pretends to feel faint when she loses the first hand, then proceeds to fix the deck while Rance fetches her a brandy. The rest is inevitable – apart from the fact that Minnie and Johnson go free at the end, making her one of the few heroines Puccini does not kill off prematurely for the sake of a multi-Kleenex climax.
While writing Bigger Deal, my 2007 sequel to my autobiograph-ical poker book Big Deal (1990), I happened to review a production of La Fanciulla at Covent Garden. Ambushed by that word ‘poker’, and thinking it would be fun to write it into the book, I made inquiries among expert colleagues and was assured that this was the only time in all opera that the word ‘poker’ is specifically mentioned.
Six months later, as I prepared to return to Las Vegas for the climax of my book (my umpteenth vain attempt to win the title of world poker champion), I was excited to prove the experts wrong when reviewing English National Opera’s revival of John Adams’ Nixon in China. In the last act, a summit-scarred Nixon is reminiscing gloomily with his wife Pat about his wartime service in the South Pacific. As her husband tells her things she has never heard from him before, Pat tries to console him with the words: ‘But you won at poker?’
‘I sure did,’ sings Nixon in reply. ‘Five-card stud taught me a lot about mankind…’ He goes on: ‘I had a system. Speak softly and don’t show your hand / Became my motto.’
Poker is also played in A Streetcar Named Desire, André Previn’s 1995 opera of the 1947 play by Tennessee Williams, famously filmed by Elia Kazan. Tchaikovsky’s own game, long before poker reached Russia, was ‘vint’ – also known as Russian whist, a forerunner of whist and bridge, and so far too staid, surely, for the histrionics required in operatic gambling scenes. But the composer, undoubtedly an addictive personality, did get pretty worked up about his luck in the diaries he kept in the summer of 1884, five years before The Queen of Spades was commissioned. ‘Very unlucky at cards tonight,’ he wrote on 16 June, ‘I was as angry as a vicious snake.’ So perhaps Tchaikovsky did feel more empathy than has hitherto been acknowledged with the crazed delusions of poor, obsessive Hermann.
Former classical music critic of The Observer, Anthony Holden is the author of a study of Tchaikovsky as well as several books about poker.