The curtain rises. Tchaikovsky toasts a deadly glass of water and collapses next to a curios caged bird. So The Queen of Spades begins.

Adapted from a short story by Pushkin, The Queen of Spades is Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky’s most ambitious opera. Equally ambitious is its UK premiere at The Royal Opera, directed by Stefan Herheim and conducted by Antonio Pappano. The plot is centered around a love triangle: Gherman, a somber soldier, falls violently in love with Liza, who is engaged with the devoted Prince Yeletsky. The word on the stage is that the Countess, Liza’s guardian, was in her youth a devastating beauty and a passionate gambler known as “The Queen of Spades”; although her looks have faded, she is said to still possess a secret three-card winning formula. Gherman decides to rob the Countess, of the fateful “tri karty” (spoiler: it’s three, seven and ace), gamble, win a fortune and then win Liza.

Happy artists are alike; every unhappy artist is unhappy in his own way. In an era which  laments its inability to separate the man from the opera, Stefan Herheim’s production of The Queen of Spades makes an irreverent, winning gamble: it casts Tchaikovsky, interpreted by Vladimir Stoyanov, and his unhappiness center stage in the artist’s opera. The artist suffered greatly being a homosexual in 19th century Russia, as his “most intense fellings of love were always mixed with shame, regret and a bitter intensity of expression”, writes the production’s dramaturg Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach. Each character in The Queen of Spades carries a fragment of Tchaikovsky’s conflictual personality, with Gherman guarding the artist’s core. The Queen of Spades is, essentially, Tchaikovsky’s deeply personal game of cards played against oneself, in which what he achieves is far more valuable than winning: it’s the glory of self-expression.

In The Royal Opera’s masterful rendition of The Queen of Spades, Tchaikovsky is at once master and observant, switching from conducting his characters’ arias to dutifully taking notes from their misfortunes as they unfold. Is he invading their world or are they invading his? This tension is enhanced by casting the same brilliant Vladimir Stoyanov as Prince Yeletsky: in a gripping scene when Gherman and Liza confess their burning love to one another, he enters the room revealing a pistol… to then start conducting their tender duet. For a fleeting moment, the ill-starred lovers are just as petrified as we are.

The walls, shelves, armchairs, the piano, the paintings, the doors of living room that is The Queen of Spade’s opening stage decor… They shift, turn, twist and even allegorically shout as they turn into a giant mirror reflecting the mystified audience. But they do not change: the characters are ultimately trapped in the same living room. And us, we are trapped in Tchaikovsky’s cage.

The Queen of Spades opened at The Royal Opera House on 13 January, with subsequent performances on  16, 19, 22, 25 and 28 January and 1 February.

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