Some things never change: it’s not only today’s opera-goers who want to see loads of big old frocks on stage, apparently. The director of the Imperial Theatres in St Petersburg, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, who originally commissioned the libretto for The Queen of Spades, included in his spec the request: “As for costumes – move it to the last century and it’s in the bag!” And that in short is why this opera is set in the late 18th century rather than the 1830s of the Pushkin story it is taken from.

Some time passed before Pyotr Tchaikovsky was persuaded to come on board and write the music, however. Perhaps it was because he had taken so much flak over his treatment of Pushkin when  making an opera out of the poet’s Eugene Onegin, and wasn’t too keen on copping a repeat dose. But finally he agreed. His eighth opera, The Enchantress, had flopped at the end of 1887; his next major piece, the 5th symphony – now one of his most popular works – had had an iffy reception in 1888, and he had concluded it was a failure. At the end of 1889 there were ongoing production problems with his new ballet The Sleeping Beauty, and at the premiere in January 1890, Tchaikovsky felt catastrophically affronted when Tsar Alexander III summoned him to the Royal Box and informed him the ballet was “very nice”.

The composer was probably over-reacting, but he flew into a rage nevertheless; and there was still worse going on in his life. For the previous 14 years he had been carrying on an intimate correspondence with a wealthy widow named Nadezhda von Meck, who supported him with a hefty annual stipend. Those letters were getting rarer and Tchaikovsky feared he was losing his sponsor – as, actually, he was. The last straw came courtesy of the woman who was still technically Tchaikovsky’s wife. He had married Antonina Milyukova in 1877 for a variety of reasons, none of them to do with sexual desire: the composer appears to have been thoroughly homosexually inclined. Their relationship was disastrous for both – each felt rejected and belittled, and they brought out the worst sort of petulant behaviour in each other. Tchaikovsky hadn’t seen her for ages, but a letter from her could still propel him into a hysterical tiz. In 1889 Antonina was pestering him for money, and he may have feared she was threatening to expose his homosexuality.

It was all too much, and Tchaikovsky fled. “I was not just tired, I was completely worn out,” he wrote later. “But I have gradually begun to feel the urge to set about my true calling, composition, to boost my spirits… Vsevolozhsky is urging me to compose an opera based on The Queen of Spades. The libretto has already been done by none other than my brother Modest. I read the libretto and liked it. And so one fine day I decided to run away from everything […] and go somewhere abroad so I could work without interference. I am staying in Florence […] I am working with great fervour; and the opera will be good, if God prolongs my life a few months…”

All this psychological stress was to bear considerable artistic fruit in The Queen of Spades. Having not been interested in the subject a couple of years back – “a story like The Queen of Spades just doesn’t excite me,” he wrote in 1888 – the composer was now on fire. Within 44 days he had written the vocal score. It is hardly a coincidence that The Queen of Spades is itself an opera of pressurised psychosis: the subject and story seem expressly created to appeal to the composer at this crucial moment.

It is a long way from Pushkin’s terse, semi-ironic novella to Modest’s libretto, and as with Eugene Onegin it is the product of an entirely different sensibility, but it is worth having a look at this classic text. Pushkin’s little ghost story is a brilliant and highly entertaining jeu d’esprit which has probably produced more lit-crit guff than anything except Henry James’s Turn of the Screw. To be fair, Pushkin’s aim (like James’s) was partly to have fun at the expense of forensic analysers of texts. It’s a story that invites a thousand interpretations, and undermines and laughs at them all. (We could start with the obvious fact that a ghost story by a writer like Pushkin could hardly be intended seriously.)

Pushkin’s Herman, an intense but fairly dull chap with “the soul of Mephistopheles and the profile of Napoleon”, as Tomsky joshingly describes him, becomes obsessed with Tomsky’s obviously untrue anecdote about his grandmother and her knowledge of three infallibly winning cards. He insinuates himself into the affections of the old woman’spoor downtrodden ward Lizaveta Ivanovna (Pushkin always names her thus, Christian name and patronymic, very formal) by mooching around looking Romantic outside her window. This gets him into the house and eventually the old woman’s bedroom, where he hides and watches with horror, after she returns from a ball, “the appalling secrets of her toilette”. She has a heart attack when he emerges from his hiding place, demanding to know her secret. Drudgy Lizaveta Ivanovna, who has been waiting with very mixed feelings for Herman to appear, realises she has been used, and disappears from the story until we hear at the end that she “marries a very nice young man”. Herman ends his days in an asylum feverishly repeating the words: “Three, seven, ace! Three, seven, queen!”

It is a bit odd to complain, as some do, about the violence done to books when turning them into opera. Few people moan about Mozart, but he transformed The Marriage of Figaro from a blithe French sex-comedy into an artistic and philosophical credo of enormous ambition and power. Pushkin’s story as it stands might have made a nice one-act chiller, but nobody wanted that. Naturally it would have to be rewritten, and Tchaikovsky wasn’t troubled by the sort of cultural nervousness that so besets those without real artistic conviction. Opera of the late 19th century had certain rather specific requirements, and incorporating them implied no disrespect to Pushkin. For this kind of opera – particularly for the emotional Tchaikovsky – a love story was essential. Mousy Lizaveta Ivanovna, poor relation, becomes posh heiress Liza and gets to share passionate love-scenes with Herman (who loses a “n” and gains a truly Romantic sensibility). Having elevated Herman’s cynical pursuit into a genuine love-story, Tchaikovsky also needed to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion, and to this end inserted the famous scene of the couple’s final meeting on the Winter Canal, culminating in Liza’s despairing suicide. And if Liza has to die, clearly Herman must too.

People have worried unnecessarily about the opera’s apparently odd attitude to time. Pushkin’s story, written in 1832, was set basically thenabouts, but the libretto shifts events back to the 1790s or so, during the reign of Catherine the Great. The Countess sings to herself an aria she remembers from her youth – that is, 1730s – but actually Grétry’s opera Richard was written in 1784, when she must have been already in her seventies. And all that chat about Count St Germain is peculiar since he hadn’t yet appeared on the scene in the ’30s (he first popped up in Paris in 1748). The answer, again, is simple: Tchaikovsky was writing an opera, not a documentary. His brother Modest took St Germain from the Pushkin story without giving the anachronism a second thought. Nobody at the time would have cared, and nor should we. Pushkin’s jokey St Germain story was thoroughly “operatised” with the suggestion that the young Count took rather more than a blushing “thank-you” from the Countess in exchange for the secret of the cards. One happy result for Tchaikovsky and us is that it enabled him to write a pastiche of Mozart in the pastorale interlude of Act 2: above all composers he idolised Mozart, and above all Mozart’s compositions he adored the turbulent world – not so far away from the spirit of The Queen of Spades – of Don Giovanni.

St Petersburg, where The Queen of Spades is set, has a special connection with the supernatural in the Russian artistic mind. Shortly after finishing The Queen of Spades, Pushkin had turned his hand to a long narrative poem called The Bronze Horseman, an intricate tribute to the city and its founder Peter the Great, which also acknowledges the horrific side of the place. Peter created his neoclassical city on a miasmal, marshy river delta, in summer a malarial swamp, in winter a frozen hell, and thousands died in its construction. Everyone recognises something inhuman in its icy perfection, and Russians have always been equivocal about its alien feel – it’s not their cosy, muddy Moscow, with its villagey backstreets and warm homely courtyards and houses; more Western than native, it is also more wholly strange.

The “horseman” of Pushkin’s title is the massive, rearing equestrian statue of Peter raised to his memory by Catherine the Great in 1782. In the poem, the indigent Yevgeny has lost his beloved Parasha, drowned in the great Neva flood of 1824. Distraught with grief, he shakes his fist at the statue, cursing Peter for founding the city in such a dreadfully inhospitable place. The offended statue springs to life and pursues Yevgeny through the streets of Petersburg in a scene of great hallucinatory power. Later, poor Yevgeny’s lifeless body is found on a little island on the river…

This strand of the fantastic and phantasmagorical continues through the work of Nikolai Gogol, in whose stories The Nose and The Overcoat Petersburg is a place of living nightmares, to the lunatics and obsessives of Dostoyevsky, to the mystical symbolism of Andrei Bely. Petersburg is uncanny – its swamps may be paved over but they can still produce a fever, a malaria of the mind. And Herman is very much one of these characters who channel and reflect the city’s edgy imbalance and mental stress – Pushkin’s version of him is very much a prototype of the unstable Dostoyevsky hero.

And it is Herman who most strongly influences the music of Pikovaya Dama: it may relax into jaunty, Carmen-influenced crowd scenes, Mozartian interludes, ballads and sentimental love songs, but the basis of the score is nervy, neurotic, mysterious, a hysteria-tinged Romanticism. Because Tchaikovsky wrote the opera in such a burst of intense concentration, it has genuine thematic unity, with single musical motifs dominating the score in a way that operates on a hyper-real but almost subconscious level. The most obvious of these is the phrase Tomsky uses for the “three cards” (“trikarty!”) when he first relates his story about the Countess. It’s already appeared in the prelude, a big brass tune over hammering accompaniment, and it is the phrase which signifies and embodies Herman’s growing madness. And actually the first time it appears in the opera proper is Herman’s entrance: the rather melancholy, very romantic cello line that brings him on stage (the tune of his song “I do not know her name”) is the very same motif reworked – though in this arrangement, so innocent and lovely, butter wouldn’t melt in its mouth.

In the opera Herman is genuinely in love with the unknown Liza – we don’t yet know that his love is as obsessive and destabilising as his fixation on the cards will prove later. Indeed, his aria starts with the easy, rather wistful lyricism we remember from Eugene Onegin, but it doesn’t last long: soon Herman is pushing the top of the tenor range and the music reaching levels of passion that are fairly alarming considering he’s only seen the girl from afar.

Because of this thematic intensity, a lot of extravagant claims have been made for The Queen of Spades as the first symbolist opera, or a harbinger of surrealism. But such concepts were completely alien to the composer, one of the most instinctive writers of music to ever lift a pen. A few years before, he wrote to the composer Sergey Taneyev about his technique: “Once I have chosen a subject, I give full vent to my passions, paying no heed to Wagnerian recipes or any desire to be original… of course if Wagner didn’t exist I would write differently… but I never let him or any of the composers I love interfere willy-nilly with my musical guts: when I write I am as God made me.”

One characteristic of the composer’s passion was how he would identify completely with one of his characters. In Eugene Onegin it was Tatyana – he had nothing but hard words for Onegin himself – and here it is Herman; Tchaikovsky felt great tenderness towards a character who is very far from cosy. Herman the romantic, the passionate subject of fate, the obsessive pursuer of the money that will give him freedom, driven to madness by a world ill-suited to such a creature. It can be hard to see Herman as a positive character: he seems to do nothing but destroy lives and happiness; but it is interesting that Tchaikovsky sees him as victim, not perpetrator. The harm Herman does is unwitting: it is not he, the striving, idealistic romantic, who is at fault, but the world itself.

At the beginning of March 1890, only a few weeks after his arrival in Florence, Tchaikovsky wrote to Modest: “I wrote the very end of the opera yesterday before dinner, and when I reached the scene with Herman’s death and final chorus, I felt such pity for Herman that I suddenly began to weep aloud. This crying lasted a terribly long time and transformed itself into a mild hysteria… Afterwards I realised why: Herman was not just a pretext to write music, but was throughout a real living person, and very sympathetic to me.”

The Queen of Spades was the greatest catharsis for Tchaikovsky, and the elation he felt in writing it continued through the process of orchestration. He was convinced he had written his masterpiece, and its success following the December premiere confirmed his opinion. The next three years saw the composition of his greatest works, The Nutcracker ballet, the opera Iolanta and the 6th Symphony. Nine days after the premiere of that work, at the age of 53, Tchaikovsky was dead, perhaps himself pursued by fate as much as his Herman.

Originally printed in Opera Holland Park’s 2016 Season Programme Magazine