In »The Queen of Spades« (»Pique Dame«), Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky is unsparing in his depiction of Hermann’s inner conflict between his unconditional love for Lisa and his manic addiction to gambling, with which he hopes to become rich and gain acceptance into the upper echelons of society. First performed in St. Petersburg in 1890, the opera is both musically and dramaturgically reminiscent of grand opéra due to its monumental scenes such as the St. Petersburg summer garden; the large-scale choral scenes are, however, contrasted with the intimate psychological drama of the protagonists. Just like Tchaikovsky’s first Pushkin setting »Eugene Onegin«, his penultimate opera »Pique Dame«, based on the story of the same name by Alexander Pushkin, was a smash hit. As Tchaikovsky noted: »Perhaps I am completely mistaken, but I believe »Pique Dame« to be my chef d’œuvre«. The opera, which has previously been performed in Dresden’s opera house in 1929 and 1947, will be staged by the renowned film and opera director Andreas Dresen in his very first production for the Semperoper.
Children are playing, women and men are strolling through a summer garden, officers are talking. Only Herman is unable to enjoy the glorious spring day. Because of his precarious financial situation, he feels like an outsider. In addition, he is unhappily in love with the noblewoman Liza, who has already been promised to Prince Yeletsky. His friend Count Tomsky tells the officers the story of Liza’s grandmother. The Countess – whom people call the »Queen of Spades« – knows a secret to winning a three-card game. So far she has entrusted her knowledge to her husband and to a young lover. However, the prophecy is grim for the third person who will demand the secret from her: namely, it will bring her death. While the listeners laugh, Herman is very interested in the story. Polina and other friends want to celebrate Lisa’s engagement to Prince Yeletsky together, but Liza is thoughtful and sad. After everyone has left, Herman suddenly appears and tells her how much he loves her. She too can no longer hide her feelings for him.
The engagement between Liza and Prince Yeletsky is to be celebrated at a masked ball. But Liza seems sad again. Herman, on the other hand, is becoming more and more obsessed with the idea of discovering the secret of the three cards. A pastoral is performed as an intermezzo, which metaphorically portrays the triangular conflict between Liza and the two men. Liza arranges to meet Herman secretly at night. In order for Herman to see her, he has to cross the Countess’s room. Herman meets the Countess, and when Herman demands, with a pistol, that she reveal the secret, the old lady dies of fright. Liza rushes in and is horrified to discover that his primary interest is the game and not her.
Herman loses himself in delusions. The Countess appears to him and so he learns the three winning cards after all: three, seven, and ace. Liza wants to talk to Herman at a night-time meeting. When he finally turns up after midnight on his way to the casino, she is disappointed and desperate that, driven by his gambling addiction, he only has eyes for possible wealth. In the casino, Herman wants to force his luck once and for all. He wins twice, but on the third card he loses everything against Prince Yeletsky of all people: Instead of the ace, he holds the queen of spades in his hand. Succumbing to madness, the dead Countess appears to him one last time. Finally he dies.