“Wept terribly when Herman gave up the ghost,” wrote Tchaikovsky in his diary. What was it that drove the composer to identify so closely with such an anti-hero, whose addiction to gambling in The Queen of Spades costs the lives of his mistress and the countess, her elderly grandmother? The role of the outsider struck a chord with Tchaikovsky, whose homosexuality alienated him from society. Stefan Herheim takes that identification as the central idea in his remarkable new production at Dutch National Opera that places the composer centre-stage, trapped by his circumstances like a caged bird.

Vladimir Stoyanov (Yeletsky) and Chorus © Monika Forster | Dutch National Opera
Vladimir Stoyanov (Yeletsky) and Chorus
© Monika Forster | Dutch National Opera

Shifting productions to the period of composition has become de rigueur. Elements of the composer's biography have been superimposed onto the action, even introducing the composer as a character. I've seen an elderly Massenet as Don Quichotte, tilting at a giant metronome and battling Stravinsky, or Puccini wrestling with writer's block and becoming Calaf – both neat ideas for a single scene, but which felt contrived elsewhere. Herheim sees his concept through brilliantly. The curtain opens on Tchaikovsky recovering from a sexual encounter with Herman. A music box in the form of a caged bird plays Papageno's “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” from The Magic Flute. The tortured composer is compelled to his piano. Tchaikovsky commands his children's chorus, conducting with his quill. “I hear you are to be married?” Surin later asks him. It's then the penny drops: Tchaikovsky is Prince Yeletsky, engaged to Lisa, the countess' granddaughter. It is a match doomed from the start, as was Tchaikovsky's own marriage to the infatuated Antonina Milyukova.

Vladimir Stoyanov (Yeletsky) and Svetlana Aksenova (Lisa) © Monika Forster | Dutch National Opera
Vladimir Stoyanov (Yeletsky) and Svetlana Aksenova (Lisa)
© Monika Forster | Dutch National Opera

Except the composer is manifested elsewhere, everywhere. The male chorus are Tchaikovsky clones, clutching glasses of iced water (from which the composer died after contracting cholera in 1893, three years after The Queen of Spades premiered). Polina becomes a trouser role in a grey flannel suit – a youthful Tchaikovsky – of which a straggly haired Herman seems a middle-aged version. The old Countess goes to bed in a dress shirt, bow tie dangling from its collar, while Lisa – dressed as a governess – strips to reveal she is wearing the same shirt before she 'drowns' in the icy waters poured over her by the chorus. Her demise in the libretto, throwing herself into the canal, reflects another autobiographical moment for the composer, who once attempted suicide by wading into the Moscow river. As guardian angel with black wings, Lisa appears both to Tchaikovsky at the start of the opera and to Herman, forced to shoot himself by the ghost of the countess, at the end.

Svetlana Aksenova (Lisa) and Misha Didyk (Hermann) © Monika Forster | Dutch National Opera
Svetlana Aksenova (Lisa) and Misha Didyk (Hermann)
© Monika Forster | Dutch National Opera

Tchaikovsky is at his happiest invoking his beloved Mozart. The divertissement plays up the parallels, Daphnis and Chlöe in feathered costumes like Papageno and Papagena. Later, the audience participates in the public shaming of his homosexuality, reflected in a giant mirror and raised to our feet by the chorus (in the stalls) to greet Catherine the Great, only to realise the empress whose hand Tchaikovsky kisses is Herman in drag. Sometimes, characters do not sing their lines to the intended recipient in the libretto. “You're old, your days are numbered,” sings Herman – not to the countess, but to the composer. Herheim's concept is superbly conceived and executed; he makes Tchaikovsky the star of his own opera.

Vladimir Stoyanov (Yeletsky) and Misha Didyk (Hermann) © Monika Forster | Dutch National Opera
Vladimir Stoyanov (Yeletsky) and Misha Didyk (Hermann)
© Monika Forster | Dutch National Opera
That the musical performances didn't always match Herheim's genius mattered not a jot in the circumstances. Misha Didyk's baritonal Herman sounded underpowered, rarely demonstrating the bright, open tenorial ring that's certainly part of his armoury. His character was pretty unhinged from the start and his further descent in the ghost scene, smoking chandelier swinging like a censer, was terrifying. Svetlana Aksenova gave a committed performance, steely high notes not always secure but indicating a woman clearly on the brink.

Velvety baritone Vladimir Stoyanov performed wonders as Yeletsky/Tchaikovsky. Normally a 'cough and a spit' role – but a coveted one due to its marvellous aria “Ya vas lyublyu” - Stoyanov and his acting/pianist double Christiaan Kuyvenhoven were on stage most of the opera – a tour de force.

The best singing of the night came from Alexey Markov's virile-voiced Tomsky, whose ballad of the three cards was dictated to Tchaikovsky at the keyboard. Larissa Diadkova's classy countess gained from singing, rather than growling, the role, and Anna Goryachova's athletic mezzo suited her trouser role Polina.

The men of the Dutch National Chorus impressed deeply, especially with the sepulchral basses in the final liturgical hymn. The other hero of the night was in the pit. To hear Mariss Jansons conduct the burnished strings, glowing horns and sinuous woodwinds of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra brought tears to my eyes. Tchaikovsky on the stage and very much alive in the pit too. Unforgettable.