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Tchaikovsky's 'The Queen of Spades'

Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades is a first-rate example of great literature that's further enlightened when set to great music.

The opera is based on a groundbreaking story by Alexander Pushkin. In it, he wrote that "two obsessions can no more exist in the same mind than two bodies can exist in the same space." If you doubt that statement, or think it's for the best, just read the story — or have a listen to Tchaikovsky's bleak, operatic version of the tale. Then think again.

Pushkin's unfortunate hero is a fellow called Hermann, who seems to have a dysfunctional soul. He observes the social lives of his friends, but stays to himself and won't participate. When a beautiful woman offers him love and companionship, he brutally exploits her for personal gain. In short, Pushkin's Hermann isn't exactly a barrel of laughs. Still, his ultimate fate does seem like a natural byproduct of his flawed personality.

Tchaikovsky's take on his story is every bit as grim as the original — and maybe grimmer, thanks to an extra layer of sentiment. In the opera, Hermann isn't quite such a cold fish — at least not at first. When he meets Lisa the two instantly fall in love, and he's overjoyed. But that love gets tangled up with obsessive greed and, in a way, the opera becomes even more tragic than Pushkin's story. Tchaikovsky gives Hermann every chance to live a meaningful and satisfying life — which in turn makes his self-destruction feel wildly irrational and sadly unnecessary.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us a production of The Queen of Spades from one of the world's great musical venues, the Vienna State Opera, with renowned tenor Neil Shicoff starring as Hermann.

Copyright NPR 2016.

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