Born in 1840 to a military family in Russia, Tchaikovsky composed works during the Late-Romantic period. His works were the first from Russia to gain recognition internationally. After a brief career in civil service he began lessons at the Russian Musical Society.
Later Tchaikovsky would enter the premiere class at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. He focused on harmony and counterpoint in music theory under Nikolai Zaremba and went on to create some of the most beloved operas in classical music.
This is our humble tribute to the Russian composer and his exceptional work in the realm of opera.
This first on our list of Tchaikovsky operas opened in Moscow in 1879. It centers around two sisters and two male friends. Tatyana and Olga are in their garden with their mother and their nurse. It is harvest time and they watch as a group of peasants celebrates. Olga sings along while Tatyana buries herself in a novel. Their mother tells her that real life isn’t like the romance she reads in her books.
Enter the poet Lensky who is also Olga’s fiancé and his friend Onegin, who is our title character. Tatyana is instantly attracted to Onegin and he too, admits that he is surprised his friend would select the other sister as a wife. Tatyana and Onegin speak and she is instantly in love.
That night in bed Tatyana cannot think of anything or anyone else but Onegin. She decides to write him a letter professing her undying love. She swears that she will never feel this strongly about anyone. She then convinces her nurse to have it delivered to Onegin.
When he receives her admission of love Onegin rushes to her and explains, with sweetness, that he is, basically not the marrying kind. He tells her he is not deserving of her love and tells her to keep her heart closer to her chest. Onegin tells her he prefers to substitute as a brother. She is devastated.
Sometime later Tatyana is being honored at a ball on her name day. Onegin is dancing with her yet people at the party begin to gossip about a budding relationship. Onegin grows irritated and is regretful that he let Lensky talk him into attending. In anger he turns his attention to Olga, who is betrothed to Lensky. He dances with his friend’s fiancé and flirts with her.
This sparks a fight between him and Lensky and Tatyana faints at her ball. The two friends duel and Lensky is killed. Year pass and Onegin runs into Tatyana, who is now married to the Prince. He realizes he does love her but she rejects him. Yes, she still feels a great deal of love for him but will be loyal to her husband.
The Queen of Spades
This is a later era Tchaikovsky opera held its premiere in 1890 at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia. More sophisticated in the area of plot, this opera surrounds a group of friends. One, Herman, is terribly in love with a woman he has seen but he does not know who she is.
For the sake of drama, Prince Yeletsky enters and expresses his excitement of his new engagement. His fiancé, Liza and her grandmother, the Countess otherwise known as the Queen of Spades, enter and Herman realizes that the Prince’s fiancé is the woman he loves whose name he does not know.
Herman learns that the Countess got her name as the Queen of Spades because she was once a young beautiful woman who used her appeal to earn a secret card combination that would benefit her when gambling. The men tell him that only two men have been able to get the secret from her, her late husband and a lover that died. The Queen of Spades has been warned about a third suitor who will try to get her secret.
The men convince Herman that his problems would disappear if he knew the Countess’ card combination. He agrees to himself and decides that is exactly what he will do. Meanwhile Liza is hanging out with her friend Pauline. More women join them and they play music and sing. Liza is quiet.
The party ceases and Pauline tells her friend to cheer up. When alone, Liza admits that she is not happy with her engagement to the prince. She saw a man at the park who has stimulated feelings in her that she didn’t think she had. Suddenly Herman is there with a pistol. He swears to kill himself if she marries the prince.
The Countess comes to Liza’s room and Herman hides. When the Countess finally leaves Liza asks Herman to leave but she cannot resist her attraction and they fall into each other’s arms. Still, Liza does not know how obsessed Herman has become with learning the Countess’ secret.
Herman sneaks into the old woman’s room and threatens her with a gun but before she could tell him her secret card combination the Countess dies from fear. Herman is caught by Liza and she feels betrayed. Liza cries and demands that Herman leave.
While away at war Herman has received a letter from Liza who wishes to meet with him. After he reads it he hears a knock. Herman goes to the window and there is an apparition of the old Countess. She says she must tell him the secret card combination so he can save Liza and take her as his wife. The ghost tells Herman three, seven, and ace.
Of course, tragedy ensues when the knowledge of this card combination drives Herman insane, which prompts Liza to commit suicide. Herman tries to use the secret to win at the casino but the combination is a trick and when Herman’s final card comes up it is the Queen of Spades. He kills himself after begging for the forgiveness of all that he hurt.
Our third Tchaikovsky opera on the list today premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow on February 15, 1884. This tragic tale begins with a group of provincial women contemplating using their flowers to create garlands in hope of finding out who their husbands shall be. Mariya arrives and she tells them she cannot join the crowd because her family is entertaining a family friend, Commander Mazeppa, with whom she has fallen madly in love.
Andrei, Mariya’s friend from childhood, confesses his love for her but she rejects him and Andrei is devastated. Back at her home Mariya’s parents, the Kochubeys, prepare a party for Mazeppa, who pulls aside his friend and asks him for Mariya’s hand in marriage. Mr. Kochubey is shocked since he is so much older than the girl and Mazeppa is Mariya’s Godfather, which is very sacred in the church.
Mazeppa tells Kochubey that he is going to have his position as Mariya’s Godfather renounced by the church and tells the girl’s father that he has already asked her. Mazeppa also insinuates, to her father, that he has already been intimate with her. Angered Kochubey demands Mazeppa to leave his home but the Commander calls his soldiers.
Mariya comes on stage and Mazeppa tells Mariya she must pick him or her family. The young innocent girl picks her lover and her family is devastated. Mariya’s mother is heartbroken and her attendants try to console her.
The father devises a plan, with the help of hi to inform Peter the Great that Mazeppa plans on joining alliances with Sweden free the Ukraine. Somehow the plan backfired and Peter the Great has joined alliances with Mazeppa. This puts Mariya’s father, Vasily, in a bad position. He becomes a prisoner of war and is sentenced to death.
Lyubov, Mariya’s mother, begs her to help save her father, who is being held by Mazeppa. Mariya was unaware of her father or the execution that was planned. They run to the square but arrive just as Vasily is beheaded. Angry and heartbroken Mariya’s mother rejects her.
These events send Mariya into insanity. When Mazeppa finds his armies overrun he abandons her. She finds her friend Andrei who had once confessed his love to her. He is dying from wounds earned in battle. She rocks him as he dies, still, he is happy to see her face one more time.
Premiering in 1892 in St. Petersburg our final Tchaikovsky opera is set in four scenes. The title character is a young blind princess who is unaware that she is either blind or a princess. She has been isolated from birth by her father and only attended to by servants. Still, Iolanta can sense that she is missing out on something and expresses her sadness.
King René, Iolanta’s father, insists that she is not ever to know she is blind nor shall or her soon to be husband, Duke Robert. A doctor, Ibn-Hakia, says that he has a treatment for Iolanta, and she could be cured of her blindness but it will only work if she knows that she is blind. The king decides that the risk of breaking her heart is too big and denies Iolanta the treatment.
The soon-to-be husband, Robert arrives and confesses to his friend Count Vaudémont that he has fallen in love with Countess Matilde and does not want to marry Iolanta. After Robert professes his love for Matilde, Vaudémont finds the garden where Iolanta has been kept. He ignores the sign forbidding intruders and finds the princess sleeping. Vaudémont falls in love with Iolanta on sight.
When she awakens Vaudémont asks her for a red rose to keep, she offers him a white one twice and finally realizes that she is blind. Vaudémont helps her by explaining color and light. The couple falls deeply in love. King René discovers them and is furious but Vaudémont tells the king he loves Iolanta and wants to marry her.
The doctor enters and tells the king that now Iolanta is aware of her condition she may be able to see again with his treatment. Iolanta is not sure she wants the treatment and the doctor says unless she has the will to see the treatment will not work. The king tells Iolanta that he will execute Vaudémont for ignoring his sign. Unless the doctor can fix her blindness.
The king admits to Vaudémont that he was not really going to kill him, he just told Iolanta than to give her the will to see. They restore her sight and Robert comes to tell the king that he loves another but will marry his daughter if he insists. The king releases Robert from his marriage contract and blesses Vaudémont with his daughter. Everyone lives happily ever after.
Keep an eye on our operas, we will soon release Iolanta performed in Madrid’s Teatro Real!