The Queen of Spades (Пиковая дама in Russian, Pikovaya dama in transliteration) is an opera in three acts by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to a Russian libretto by the composer's brother Modest Tchaikovsky, based on a short story by the poet Aleksandr Pushkin. The lavish premiere was held at the Maryinsky Theatre, Saint Petersburg on December 19th, 1890. In 1902, Gustav Mahler conducted it at the Vienna State Opera, and by 1910 most of the major opera houses had staged a production.
Previously, the opera was commonly performed in French under the still recognized title Pique-Dame. Nowadays, the opera is almost exclusively sung in Russian. There are several recordings of it, and it is frequently performed.
The subject of the opera, very generally, is the destructive and isolating nature of gambling addiction. Herman is an army officer who manipulates the naive Lisa, the granddaughter of a countess known as the Queen of Spades. The countess knows the "secret of the three cards" and has revealed it to two men, but if she reveals it to a third, she will die. Herman becomes obsessed with learning the secret, and it costs him his possessions, Lisa, and ultimately his own life.
Pushkin's original story was modified to make the drama suitable for opera. In the opera, Herman's love affair with Lisa is more genuine and less a charade than in Pushkin's novella; where Pushkin sends Herman to an asylum and Lisa to marry another man, the opera melodramtically ends in a double suicide. The opera sharpens the social inequalities dividing the main characters by making Lisa the granddaughter of the countess and Herman's social superior (in the novella, Lisa was the countess' ward). By interpreting the story in his own way, Tchaikovsky simultaneously integrates it.
In the opera, the main hero Herman is on stage and sings in all seven scenes. This demands a singer of great skill and endurance. The part was written for the remarkable Russian tenor Nicolai Figner, who originated the role.
The management of the Imperial Theatre offered a commission to Tchaikovsky to write an opera to a plot by I. A. Vsevolozhskyi in 1887/88. Originally Tchaikovsky refused, but later in 1889, he accepted. Toward the end of that year, he met with theatre managers to discuss the script, the lay-out of the scenes, and the elements of performance.
He sketched out the opera from January to March in Florence in only 44 days. From July to December of 1890, Tchaikovsky completed a set of changes to the literary text, recitatives, and voice parts. Working with the tenor Figner, he created two versions of Herman’s aria from the seventh scene, including different tonalities. All of these changes are found in the proof sheets and inserts for the first and second editions.
While composing the music, Tchaikovsky actively edited the libretto. He substantially changed the text, entered scenic notes, made reductions, and wrote his own lyrics for arias for Yeletsky, Lisa, and the chorus.
The composer himself took part in the preparation of the Saint Petersburg premiere. Critics gave rave reviews. "Figner's bright temperament has given to each phrase in the powerful moments the needed relief. In the lyrical parts... Figner’s singing was awe-inspiring with a charming softness and sincerity." Tchaikovsky later wrote, "Figner and the Saint Petersburg orchestra... have made true miracles."
The success of The Queen of Spades, as its author had well expected, was tremendous. It continued that success twelve days later at the Kiev premiere. On November 4, 1891, it was performed in Moscow at the Bolshoy Theatre. Tchaikovsky was extremely pleased with the opera. In an eloquent self-estimation, he said, "...either I am terribly mistaken, or The Queen of Spades really is a masterpiece...." This appraisal truly was prophetic.
Act I Scene 1. In a sunny, summer garden, people are strolling. Officers Surin and Chekalinsky share impressions about the strange behaviour of their friend Herman. He spends in the gambling house, but does not tempt fate at all. Herman enters with Colonel Tomskyi. Herman opens his soul to him, explaining that he is passionately in love, but he does not know his loved one's name. They are joined by several officers. Prince Eletsky tells of his up-coming marriage. "This beautiful angel has given consent to combine her destiny with mine!" Herman is horrified to learn that the prince's fiancée is the subject of his passion.
The countess and her granddaughter enter. Both women are hypnotised by the sight of the unfortunate Herman. Tomsky tells the story of the countess who, as a young Moscow "lioness" had lost all her fortune playing the card game Faro. After an affair with Count Saint-German, she learned the secret of three winning cards, and won back her fortune. She told her husband the secret, and later a handsome young man. That night, a phantom came to her and said that she would receive a mortal blow from the third one she told.
Herman listened to the story with great interest. Surin and Chekalisky play a trick on him and suggest that he find out the old woman’s secret at cards. A thunderstorm rumbles. The garden empties. Only Herman meets the raging elements openly. He exclaims that while he is alive, he will never let the prince have his beloved.
Scene 2. At twilight in Lisa's room, the girls play music, trying to amuse their friend who is sad, despite her engagement with the prince. When alone, she reveals that she loves to the mysterious stranger, in whose eyes she saw the fire of scorching passion. Suddenly, Herman appears on a balcony. He has come to see her one last time before killing himself. His ardour carries away Lisa. A knock at the door interrupts him. Hiding, Herman is excited by the appearance of the old countess, who looks like a terrible phantom of death. Unable to hide her feelings anymore, Lisa submits to Herman.
Act II Scene 1. In his house, a rich dignitary is hosting a ball. Eletsky, disturbed by the coldness of Lisa, assures her of the immensity of his love. Chekalinsky and Surin, wearing masks, scoff at Herman, asking him whether he will be the third to learn the secret of the three cards. Herman is excited. Their words spark his imagination. After the completion of the pastoral The Faithful Shepherdess, he sees the Countess. When Lisa gives him the keys to her bedroom which connects to the countess's, Herman thinks it is an omen. Tonight he will learn the secret of the three cards, and with it, win Lisa’s hand.
Scene 2. Herman hides in the bedroom of the countess. The countess enters. She is unhappy with the customs of the day, and with melancholy recalls the past. She falls asleep in an armchair. Herman reveals himself, begging her to reveal the secret of the three cards, but the countess, who has grown dumb with fright, is unyielding. When Herman threatens her with a pistol, she dies of shock. Blaming Herman for the death, Lisa sends him away. In this scene, the ancient French song "Vive Henri IV" as well as the beginning of Loretta’s aria from Grétry's Richard III is heard.
Act III Scene 1. Herman is in a barracks. He reads Lisa’s letter, forgiving him, and asking him to meet her on the quay. In his imagination, he sees pictures of the old woman's funeral. Doleful singing is heard. The phantom of Countess appears in a white funeral shroud. "Rescue Lisa, marry her, and the three cards will win in succession. Remember! The three! The seven! The ace!"
Scene 2. Lisa awaits Herman, full of doubt. At midnight, she is finally relieved when Herman appears. But Herman, after confessing his love, is possessed with idea of using the secret of the three cards. When she refuses to go with him to the gambling house, he pushes her away and leaves. Lisa, realizing that the inevitable has happened, throws herself into the river.
Scene 3. The players are gambling in the casino. Tomskyi entertains them with a playful song. Herman enters and wins two large stakes, betting on the three and the seven. Prince Eletsky, looking for revenge, is the only one who will cover the third bet. Instead of the expected ace, Herman is dealt the queen of spades. He sees the features of the old dead woman on the card. Full of grief, he stabs himself. Dying, he asks for forgiveness.