Opera Profile: Tchaikovsky’s Eerie & Tragic ‘The Queen of Spades’

By David Salazar

“The Queen of Spades” premiered on the same exact day as Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” though admittedly a few years later.

The composer was already 11 years older between operas and the second work is far more nuanced in its orchestral colors and how the composer weaves together a far more complex plot. It remains the famed Russian composer’s second-most popular work, though it is performed infrequently, requiring a major tenor to carry the work from start to finish.

Short Plot Summary

A group of soldiers are at the gambling table complaining about their bad luck. They remark that Herman, another soldier is obsessed with gambling but never places any bets. Herman confesses to his friend Tomsky that he is in love with a girl above his station. The soldiers congratulate Prince Yeletsky on his recent engagement. He points out his fiancée Liza, who is with her grandmother, the old Countess. Herman realizes she is the one he loves. The soldiers remark that the Countess is known as the Queen of Spades for her gambling prowess. The soldiers remark that Herman could solve his problems if he learned the Queen of Spades’ secret and he vows to find it out.

Liza, meanwhile, is unhappy with her engagement as she was stirred by Herman’s gaze at her. Herman appears at her balcony telling her that he is ready to kill himself for her love. She eventually gives in to his embrace.

At a masked ball, Liza gives Herman the key to her grandmother’s room. He thinks that he will learn the secret of gambling from the Countess. He slips into her room and tries to coax the secret from the old lady, going so far as to threaten her with a pistol. She dies of fright and Liza discovers her lover at the scene of the crime. She orders him out.

At the barracks, Herman reads a letter from Liza who wants to see him at the river bank near midnight. The ghost of the old Countess appears to him and tells him the secret three cards – three, seven, ace. Liza meets with Herman but he does not even notice her. She commits suicide.

Herman heads to gamble with Yeletsky. He wins the first three rounds, betting on the cards that the Countess told him. But when he bets on the ace, he loses it all and realizes the ghost of the Countess was claiming her vengeance. He commits suicide and pleads for forgiveness.

Watch and Listen

Here is a performance from the Bolshoi Opera from 1983.


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