The Queen of Spades

by Pjotr Iljitsch Tschaikowski
Opera in three acts
Libretto by Modest Iljitsch Tschaikowski
in Russian with German subtitles
Tchaikovsky‘s Pique Dame is based on a Alexander Pushkin story by the same name. Similar to the contemporary Dostojewsky with his novels, Tschaikowsky succeeds in transposing into his opera – a delirious psychological profile – motives of Pushkin’s novel into his own present time. Herman feels haunted by the ghost of a duchess who during her younger years at the French Court, was known and celebrated as the „Muscovite Venus“ and who was then bestowed with the secret of three infallible playing cards. In Herman’s soul, the envisioned victory in gambling more and more replaces the erotic fulfillment of his love for Lisa, until he is finally lead straight into a deadly embrace with the old Duchess.
Acts I/II: approx. 1 h 35 min
Intermission: approx. 30 min
Act III: approx. 1 h 10 min
This production's premiere
Recommended age
from grade 9
Part I

A spring day in a poor quarter of Saint Petersburg.
The eccentric Herman confesses to Tomsky that he is in love with Lisa, whom he has only admired from a distance. Herman is encouraged by Tomsky, a newly wealthy social climber, but mocked by his comrades Chekalinsky, Surin, Chaplitsky, and Namurov.
Prince Yeletsky appears and introduces Lisa as his fiancée. Though fascinated by Herman, Lisa has decided not to get involved with him, as only a marriage of convenience to the prince offers her the opportunity to escape her poverty. Herman is stunned. Lisa’s grandmother, the old countess, enters. She is both repelled and fascinated by the sight of Herman – as he is by her.
Tomsky recounts the rumors about the countess’s nickname, “Queen of Spades”: It is said that as a young woman, she caused a stir in Paris as the “Muscovite Venus.” After gambling away her entire fortune, she fell prey to the Count of Saint Germain, who revealed to her the secret of three invincible cards in exchange for a night of love. The countess won everything back and later entrusted the secret to her husband and a lover. However, she was warned by an apparition that a third lover would attempt to learn the secret of the cards, thereby bringing about her death.
Herman is known to watch games of chance all night long but never take part himself. Now his comrades goad him: if he were the old countess’s lover, he could play without putting himself at risk.
Before the wedding, Lisa says goodbye to her friends Polina and Masha and the other women who live in their building. Only when she is alone do her repressed feelings for Herman catch up with her. Suddenly Herman stands before her and threatens to kill himself, saying he cannot live without her. He has to hide, however, at the return of the old countess, who has been spying on her granddaughter. Once Lisa and Herman have been left alone again, she confesses that she loves him too.
To celebrate Lisa’s departure, her neighbors rehearse and put on a play, “The Faithful Shepherdess.” The piece is actually a bitter commentary directed at Lisa: unlike the titular shepherdess, Lisa has chosen money and social advancement over her love for a pauper.
Herman’s comrades continue to shock and unsettle him with their teasing allusions to the old countess. Lisa manages to get away from Prince Yeletsky and smuggle a key to Herman, telling him he can use it to get to her room by way of the countess’s bedroom. He tells her to expect him that night.

Part II

More and more, it is the “Muscovite Venus” who captures Herman’s imagination. Coming upon the old countess by surprise, he pleads with her; in her mind, memories of her youthful glory in the courts of France mingle with Herman’s presence. She dies in his arms, without revealing her secret. Rushing in, Lisa sees that Herman’s true interest is not her, but rather the secret of the three cards.
His hopes dashed by the death of the countess, Herman is haunted by dark and feverish imaginings. At their peak, the ghost of the old countess appears and enjoins him to marry Lisa – and teaches him the three infallible cards: the three, the seven, and the ace.
Lisa has given Herman an ultimatum: if he does not visit her by midnight, she will regard him as her grandmother’s murderer. Shortly after midnight, he arrives to take her to the gaming house. Recognizing his madness, she takes her own life.
Herman surprises the other gamblers by asking to join the game. He bets an exorbitant sum and wins with the three, then doubles his winnings in the next round with the seven. No one is willing to play against him until Prince Yeletsky steps up. He has come to avenge himself against Herman for the loss of Lisa. Herman loses: instead of the ace, he has bet on the queen of spades.