The libretto of the opera is very different from the original. Pushkin’s work is prosaic, the libretto is poetic, moreover with verses not only by the librettist and the composer himself, but also Derzhavin, Zhukovsky, Batyushkov. Lisa at Pushkin is a poor pupil of a rich old woman-countess; with Tchaikovsky, she is her granddaughter, “so that, as the librettist explains,“ to make Herman’s love for her more natural ”; however, it is not clear why his love would be less “natural” for the poor girl. In addition, an unexplained question arises about her parents – who, where are they, what is wrong with them. Hermann (sic!) At Pushkin is from the Germans, because this is the spelling of his name, Tchaikovsky does not know anything about his German origin, and in the opera German (with one “n”) is simply perceived as a name. Prince Yeletsky, who appears in the opera, is absent from Pushkin. Count Tomsky, whose relationship with the countess in the opera was not noted at all, and where he was bred by an outsider (just a friend of Herman, like other players), is Pushkin’s grandson; this, apparently, explains his knowledge of family secrets. The action of the drama of Pushkin takes place in the era of Alexander I, while the opera takes us – it was the idea of the director of the imperial theaters I.A. Vsevolozhsky – in the Catherine era. The endings of the drama for Pushkin and Tchaikovsky are also different: for Pushkin, Hermann, although he is crazy (“He is sitting in the Obukhov hospital in the 17th number”), still does not die, and Liza, moreover, gets married relatively safely; at Tchaikovsky – both heroes die. There are many more examples of differences – both external and internal – in the interpretation of events and characters by Pushkin and Tchaikovsky.
Time: The close of the 18th century Place: St. Petersburg, Russia
In St. Petersburg’s Summer Park two officers Surin and Chekalinsky are concerned with their friend Herman’s behavior as he spends in the gambling-house every night but never bets. Herman appears with Count Tomsky. Herman admits that he is in love with a girl whose name he does not even know but he is aware of the fact that the girl above the station is an heiress of a rich and noble family and cannot marry him. Prince Yeletsky joins the officers and tells about his upcoming marriage. Herman asks him about his fiancée. Yeletsky points out Liza accompanying the old Countess on the stroll. Herman is stricken as he recognizes his beloved in the Prince’s fiancée. Tomsky tells Herman a mystical story about the three lucky cards, the winning formula that Count St. Germain in Paris told the Countess, a passionate gambler, long ago. The winning formula helped the “Venus of Moscow” get her fortune back but the payment for the secret would be her death caused by “the third suitor” who will come to find out the secret cards burning with gambling passion. The Summer Park is getting empty. The thunderstorm is approaching but Herman is not afraid, he vows that Liza will belong to him or he will die.
Liza is welcoming her friends in her room at the Countess’. On their leaving the girl voices her love to a mysterious young man she has seen in the park. All of a sudden, Herman appears on the balcony. She recognizes the young man she is in love with. Herman says the words of love to Liza. A powerful knock on the door is heard. The Countess comes to Liza to find out the reason for the noise that disturbed her repose. Herman manages to hide. On seeing the Countess the young man decides that he must reveal the secret of the three cards at any cost. His desire to discover the winning formula substitutes his love towards Liza for a moment. The Countess retires and Herman repeats his words of love. The girl is smashed with the force of his love and addresses the words of love to Herman.
At the grand ball Count Yeletsky worried with Liza being distant reassures her of his love. Liza avoids explanations. Liza gives Herman the key to a secret door in the Countess’ mansion. Herman has to go through the Countess’ bedroom to get to the Liza’s room. Herman thinks that the very fate is handing him the Countess’ winning formula.
Being alone at the Countess’ bedroom, obsessed with the desire to reveal the three cards secret Herman decides to stay in the bedroom and force the Countess tell him the winning formula. Coming home from the ball the Countess reminisces about the better times, noble balls in Paris, success and acclaim. As she doses off, Herman stands before her and pleads with her to tell him the secret. The Countess remains speechless. Herman threatens with a pistol and demands an immediate answer revealing the three secret cards. The Countess dies of freight. On hearing some noise Liza rushes into the Countess’ bedroom. Seeing a dead Countess she exclaims, “You did not need me you needed cards!”
In his room at the barracks, Herman reads a letter from Liza who wants him to meet her by the riverbank. The dead Countess haunts Herman down. He experiences delusions when the ghost of the Countess appears. She tells Herman to marry Liza and reveals the secret combination. The winning cards are the three, the seven and the ace…
At the bank of the Winter Canal, Liza waits for Herman and hopes that he will dissolve her suspicions that he has committed a predetermined murder. Herman appears. It seems for a spit-second that there are no happier people on earth. However, obsessed with the idea of the three cards Herman pushes Liza away and rushes to the gambling-house. Liza commits suicide jumping off the bridge.
At a gambling house, Herman appears at the midst of a game. He bets on big sums of money and wins twice in a row. The game goes on. This time Prince Yeletsky confronts Herman. Herman expects the ace to win but instead the winning card is the queen of spades. Seeing the Countess’ ghost laughing on the card Herman is stricken up to madness. Insanity makes him to shoot himself. The last minute of his life brings Liza’s image to his tormented mind. Herman dies with her name on his lips.
Libretto by Modest Tchaikovsky based on a short story of the same name by Alexander Pushkin
The opera The Queen of Spades is one of the greatest works of world realistic art. This musical tragedy is shocking with the psychological truthfulness of reproducing the thoughts and feelings of the heroes, their hopes, suffering and death, the brightness of the paintings of the era, the intensity of the musical and dramatic development. The characteristic features of Tchaikovsky’s style got their most complete and perfect expression here.