Synopsis

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The Queen of Spades

Act I
St. Petersburg, late 18th century. In the Summer Park, Sourin and Tchekalinsky discuss the strange behavior of their friend and fellow officer Ghermann. He seems obsessed with gambling, watching his friends play all night, though he never plays himself. Ghermann appears with Count Tomsky, who has noted that his friend seems distracted. He asks him what is bothering him. Ghermann admits that he is in love with a girl whose name he doesn’t know. When Prince Yeletsky enters, followed by his fiancée, Lisa, and her grandmother, the old countess, Ghermann is shocked to realize that Lisa is his unknown girl. After Yeletsky and the women have left, Tomsky tells the others the story of the countess. Decades ago in Paris, when she was known as the “Venus of Moscow,” she won a fortune at the gambling table with the help of “the three cards,” a winning combination she learned from the Count de Saint-Germain. She only ever shared this secret with two other people, one of them her husband, and there is a prophecy that she will die at the hands of a third person who will force the secret from her. The men laugh at the story except for Ghermann, who is deeply affected by it and decides to learn the countess’s secret.

Lisa and her friends pass the time singing. When she is left alone, she thinks about her ambivalent feelings for her fiancé and the impression Ghermann has made on her. To her shock, he suddenly appears on the balcony. He claims that he will kill himself if she marries another man and begs her to have pity on him. Lisa gives in to her feelings and confesses that she loves him.

Act II
Yeletsky has noticed a change in Lisa’s behavior toward him. During a ball in one of St. Petersburg’s palaces, he assures her of his love. Ghermann, who is also among the guests, has received a note from Lisa, asking him to meet her. Sourin and Tchekalinsky tease Ghermann with remarks about the “three cards,” telling him that he will be the third person to learn the secret. After the performance of an opera based on the story of Daphnis and Chloé, Lisa slips Ghermann the key to a garden door that will lead him to her room and through the countess’s bedroom. She says the old lady will not be there the next day, but Ghermann insists on coming that very night, thinking that fate is handing him the chance to learn the countess’s secret.

In the countess’s bedroom, Ghermann looks fascinated at a portrait of her as a young woman. He senses that their fates are linked: one of them will cause the other’s death. He hides as the old lady returns from the ball, and, reminiscing about her youth, falls asleep in an armchair. She awakens when Ghermann suddenly steps before her and demands to know the secret of the cards. The countess refuses to talk to him, and when Ghermann, growing desperate, threatens her with a pistol, she dies of fright. Lisa rushes in. Horrified at the sight of her dead grandmother, she realizes that all Ghermann was interested in was the countess’s secret.

Act III
Ghermann is descending into obsession. In his quarters, he reads a letter from Lisa asking him to meet her at midnight. He recalls the countess’s funeral and suddenly her ghost appears, telling him that he must save Lisa and marry her. The ghost says that his lucky cards will be three, seven, and the ace.

Lisa waits for Ghermann by a canal, wondering if he still loves her. When he at last appears, she says they should leave the city together. Ghermann refuses, replying that he has learned the secret of the cards and is on his way to the gambling house. Lisa realizes that she has lost him and drowns herself in the canal.

The officers are playing cards, joined by Yeletsky, who has broken off his engagement to Lisa. Ghermann enters, distracted, and immediately bets 40,000 rubles. He wins on his first two cards, a three and a seven. Upsetting the others with his maniacal expression, he declares that life is a game. For the final round, he bets on the ace but loses when his card is revealed as the queen of spades. Horrified and imagining the countess’s face staring at him from the card, Ghermann stabs himself, asking for Yeletsky’s and Lisa’s forgiveness.