What is the deciding factor in a man’s fate - love, which liberates from obsession, or the magnetic thrill of a game, which subjects the will with an iron fist? Noted Russian poet Alexander Pushkin’s story Pikovaya dama (The Queen of Spades, 1836) drew accolades as soon as it was published – readers were intrigued by its fantastical subject matter and precisely captured zeitgeist. Thanks to Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s outstanding talent, the love triangle between Herman, Liza and the Countess captivates with the depth of its psychological representation.
SETTING: St Petersburg
In Alexander Pushkin’s story (1833):
during the reign of Alexander I, the 20s of the 19th century
In Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s opera (1890):
at the end of Catherina II reign, the 80s – 90s of the 18th century
In the LNO production of 2005 – Russia, the beginning of the 21st century
Summer park in St Petersburg is full of children and their nursemaids, playing. Surin and Chekalinsky are discussing the strange behaviour of their comrade Herman: he seems obsessed with the gaming table but never bets himself. Herman enters accompanied by his friend Tomsky and confesses to the friend the passion he feels for a beautiful stranger whose name he does not even know. When Prince Yeletsky strolls into the park, Chekalinsky congratulates him on his recent engagement. Yeletsky declares his happiness and points out his fiancee, Liza, who has just appeared with her grandmother, the old Countess. Agast, Herman recognizes his love to be Yeletsky’s fiancee. Catching sight of Herman, staring at them with frightening intensity, the two women note they have seen him before. Tomsky entertains his friends with a peculiar story about the Countess: once, in her youth when living in Paris, she lost all her property in cards. In return for her favours for one night, Count St. Germain gave her the secret of the three cards, which would win her a fortune. Later on, she revealed the secret to her husband and to a young lover, but her dreams warned her that she would die when a third man tried to force the winning formula out of her. Herman is fascinated by the story. Musing on the magical three cards, the others lightly suggest that such a combination would solve Herman's problems. Threatened by an approaching thunderstorm all leave except Herman who in a flash of passion vows to win Liza’s love or die in attempt. In the evening twilight Liza has gathered with her girlfriends in her room. Polina sings Liza’s favourite ballad trying to cheer up her pensive friend. It is late and the girls have to leave. Alone, Liza expresses the anguish she feels – in spite of the former joy at being betrothed to her fiance, she has been stirred by the romantic look of the young man in the park. All of a sudden Herman appears on the balcony and declares his love for Liza, and she does not pretend to be indifferent to him. The conversation is interrupted by the old Countess knocking at the door. Liza hides Herman and opens the door to the old lady.
A masked ball at a nobleman’s mansion in St Petersburg. Yeletsky alarmed by Liza’s sadness reassures her of his love. Surin and Chekalinsky make fun of Herman who is consumed by his desire to learn the secret of the three cards. Herman is agitated – the talk of his comrades kindles his fantasies even more. Suddenly he sees the old Countess and the sight gives rise to terrible thoughts. Then Liza appears and secretly gives Herman the key to her grandmother's room, saying the old woman will not be there the next day, but Herman insists on coming that very night. Thinking fate is handing him the Countess' secret, wealth and a happy future with Liza, he leaves. Herman slips into the Countess' room, looks in fascination at her portrait as a young woman and feels attracted to it by a secret power. The Countess and her attendants unexpectedly enter. The old lady nostalgically reminiscences on her youth in France and falls asleep. As she dozes off, Herman stands before her. She awakens in horror as he pleads with her to tell him her secret. When she remains speechless, he grows desperate and threatens her with a pistol — at which she dies of fright. Liza rushes in only to learn that the lover to whom she gave her heart was more interested in the Old Countess' secret. She orders him out.
In his room at the barracks Herman reads a letter from Liza, who has forgiven him and invites him to meet her. In his imagination he hears the chorus chanting at the Old Countess' funeral. Suddenly the old woman's ghost appears, announcing that Herman must marry Liza and then he will win betting on three cards – three, seven and ace. Dazed, Herman repeats the three cards like incantation — three, seven, ace. Liza waits for Herman to rethink the events of the recent days. She is torn by doubts and uncertainty: it is already near midnight and Liza is losing hope to see her beloved. At last he appears, excitedly speaking about his love and a pile of gold... He urges the girl to join him to the gambling house and failing to persuade her he rushes away alone. Realizing that all is lost, she kills herself. At a gambling house, the players are entertaining themselves. Tomsky sings a jolly song. As the merriment increases, Herman arrives. Two times playing on high stakes he wins. When Herman plays the third time va banque Yeletsky accepts his challenge to bet on the next round and instead of the lucky ace, Herman finds in his hands the queen of spades. Herman seems to recognise the old Countess’ features in the Queen’s face. Driven completely mad, Herman fatally injures himself. Regaining consciousness for the last time he asks Yeletsky for his forgiveness and declares his love for Liza. With words – “Beauty! Goddess! Angel!” Herman dies.